Farm Cafe serves up local food with a side of dignity and compassion

Sarah MacDonald has an obsessive-compulsive need to help people. She has driven strangers to the hospital, helped homeless people find shelter, and assisted others with writing resumes and finding jobs.

But her real passion is food.

“We have people finishing their day’s work and having nothing to eat,” she says. “Then they’re supposed to go back to work tomorrow on an empty stomach.”

Over the last 10 years, MacDonald has built gardens and planted thousands of seeds in community spaces, schools and backyards. She has also planted the seed of self-sufficiency in the volunteers who gather each day at the Farm Cafe, the social enterprise she operates at the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) campus in Middleton.

Now going into its third year, the Farm Cafe serves up soup, salads, sandwiches and hot meals to everyone on a pay-what-you-can basis. She has one staff member, but otherwise relies on the help of volunteers.

Some arrive directly from a mental health ward; others are on probation or parole. Some have been “living rough” on the street.

“The people who work with me are people like me — who have addictions, are recovering from addictions, have mental health issues or severe diagnoses,” she says.

“Most have been unhoused at some point.”

At the cafe, everyone who shows up to do some work gets fed and can take home what they need. The cafe is open Monday though Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and on any given day, two volunteers might come in, or there might be 15.

Sarah’s people know where to find her. “I collect people,” she says, laughing. “I’ve collected so many people over the years that I can just wait, and they will come though the door.”

After fleeing domestic violence, Rebecca Hicks was homeless for three months before walking through the doors of the Farm Cafe one summer day in 2022 to take a shower.

Hicks now volunteers at the Farm Cafe five days a week, arriving at 9:30 a.m. and proceeding to do kitchen prep work before moving out front to handle the cash.

She began volunteering last summer, and is now living in a tiny home just a five-minute drive away.

She is able to get a ride to and from the cafe with a friend, and while there, she develops her work skills with an eye to eventually finding employment. In addition to the food and showers, Hicks says the social interaction helps to sustain her.

“This is a safe place to come to,” she says. “This has given me strength and courage, and something to live for.”

The cafe produces food on four raised-bed gardens and in a greenhouse on site that are operated with the help of summer students supported by student employment programs. This food supply is supplemented by donations and purchases from local markets and grocery stores.

Any extra food goes into a free-meal freezer from which anyone in need can help themselves. One local resident whose husband is dying was able to bring home 10 frozen meals, free of charge.

MacDonald began her quest to alleviate food insecurity by building community gardens in Berwick and Kentville. She went on to launch a free lunch program called SOUP, or Sharing our Under-appreciated Produce, which ran on donations of nearly expired or imperfectly shaped produce (the U originally stood for Ugly) that was considered unsuitable for commercial sale.

The SOUP program evolved into the Farm Cafe, and MacDonald sees it as a model that can be replicated elsewhere, with the potential to address a range of social issues.

What constitutes a social enterprise can be vague and elastic, but the generally agreed-upon definition in Nova Scotia would be an enterprise that is operated for the purpose of addressing social, cultural, environmental or economic challenges, with the majority of profits or surpluses reinvested to support that goal.

Both government and private sector sources of financing are available for social enterprises. Crowd-funding can be employed, as can mechanisms such as Community Economic Development Funds (CEDIFs) and social impact bonds.

The structure of a social enterprise can take many forms, including cooperatives, for-profit, not-for-profit, or hybrid models in which a for-profit company takes on a social objective. Andrew Button launched Mash Up Labs 10 years ago to help entrepreneurs flourish across rural Nova Scotia.

“We’re an incorporated company,” Button explains. “But in terms of the work we do — and what we do with the profits — we look more like a social enterprise than a company solely focused on maximizing shareholder value.”

While MacDonald dreams of the day when food is considered a right rather than a privilege, she will continue to offer people a point of attachment, and a haven of caring in an often unforgiving world.

“A lot of the people I work with don’t have anyone who cares,” she says. “This is a place where someone can have a meal, learn a skill and get on with their life.”

The Farm Cafe is located in the cafeteria at the NSCC Annapolis Valley Campus. Details can be found online at or email

Share this

Related stories

Subscribe for monthly updates