The Currency Exchange Café: Community based sustainability

Article by Carly Schulman

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A lot has happened at the Currency Exchange Café since we first started working with them through our Sustainability Assistance Program this spring, including Ina Pinkney’s coverage in the Tribune in which she raved about the café.  We struggled to coordinate schedules for our final meeting to go over Next Bites’ official report, but the time delay meant I was greeted with a Currency Exchange Café that had already embraced many of our suggestions!  This wasn’t surprising, as our interns working with us on the audit and report often expressed how they were impressed with the sustainability efforts the café was taking before we got involved: especially composting and local food sourcing.

Located in the Arts Block of Washington Park, the Currency Exchange Café is an extension of Rebuild Foundation, Theaster Gate’s platform for art, cultural development, and neighborhood transformation.  The café is run by Megan Jeyifo, and is thoroughly committed to its goals of bolstering and celebrating its community.  Megan seems to know all of her customers – and not just by their order and name.  As she greets people she asks about their work, family, and hobbies, occasionally switching seamlessly into Spanish to continue conversations.

The café’s décor is very place oriented and utilizes reworked pieces of the original building and others nearby to create a unique and comfortable setting.  The food and drinks are equally amazing.  If you follow Next Bites on Instagram, you no doubt saw multiple photos of dishes, drinks, and the décor throughout the summer.  Most recently, I enjoyed the Green Goddess (a matcha latte with mint) and one of Marcela’s biscuits with the café’s homemade preserves.  I highly recommend both of those options, though – to be fair – I would also highly recommend everything else I’ve tried.

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For Megan, all the environmental sustainability goals of the café must be balanced with local social and economic sustainability.  Washington Park, like much of the mid-South Side, has long been cut off from many of the economic opportunities in the rest of the city.  As such, the residents of the neighborhoods around the café are less interested in hearing about bucolic farms outside of the city, and more interested in learning about support of the hyper-local urban farms in their own neighborhoods or the vendors located on the greater South Side in Back of the Yards and Englewood. The Currency Exchange Café sources from all those settings, though its commitment to urban farms is perhaps the most unique compared to other restaurants in our network.  From Next Bites’ perspective the beauty of embracing these hyper-local businesses is that they are not only important socially and economically, but also one of the most environmentally sustainable options.

Before we started our work on the sustainability audit, Megan was already sourcing greens from the Gary Comer Youth Center, and expressed interest in developing more connections similar in nature.  While Megan needed little help from us to make these connections, this commitment of hers was the main inspiration for the Urban Farm to Restaurant Initiative Next Bites is currently developing.  Starting in January, we will have support from UChicago’s Community Programs Accelerator's Special Projects Program to build on pre-existing efforts through research and connections, bolstering the farms already serving restaurants and helping those that are not to build the connections to do so.  Through trial and error this summer, Megan found which forms of communication and delivery of goods work best for the café – information that will be invaluable as we move forward with our project and gather more information.

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For our readers less familiar with the area, a trip to the café is great paired with exploring Bronzeville/Washington Park through the DuSable Museum of African American History, the South Side Community Art Center, or the Arts Incubator (right next door!).  Visitors can also head over to the neighboring Hyde Park to see the Renaissance Society, Hyde Park Art Center, or the Museum of Science and Industry.  We suggesting picking multiple points of interest and making a day of it!  Click here to see the public events hosted by the Currency Exchange Café.

The Currency Exchange Café is located at 305 E Garfield Blvd.  It has abundant street parking and is steps from the Green Line Garfield stop.  The café is open to the public M-F from 8am to 4pm, Sat from 9am to 4pm, and Sun from 10am to 4pm.  Outside of the regular business hours, the café space and the adjacent BING Reading Room are available to rent for private events.