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The button jar on the counter at 541 Eatery and Exchange in Hamilton holds valuable currency. (Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)

The little girl has to stretch up to tips of her toes to reach the “buy a button” jar. One by one, she counts out the five buttons her mom has just purchased, each one a different shape, size and colour, and slides them across the counter to a glass jar labelled “take a button.”

Her mom ruffles her hair as they head over to their table to eat. Tonight’s menu at 541 Barton offers an autumn salad box with kale, feta, roasted squash, poached pear and candied pumpkin seeds for $6, or an array of fresh sandwiches, $4 to $6 each. The $2 curried potato and leek soup is sold out.

Before their first bite, the five buttons are gone, scooped up by the next customer in line. The young man, clean shaven in a black-striped track suit, has been waiting for the chance to order dinner.

“A BLT, please,” he tells the barista, handing over the buttons.

As the dinner rush continues, buttons flow back and forth between the jars as customers – young families, a group of university students, a woman with mental-health issues – place their orders. Some give buttons, some take.

The afternoon shift of volunteers greet customers at 541 Eatery and Exchange in Hamilton on October 5, 2016. (Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)

Here, buttons are currency – and the great equalizer.

In the two years since 541 Barton Eatery and Exchange first opened its doors inside a former bank, it has become a beacon of optimism in a neighbourhood that has long needed one. Though it is just around the corner from thriving James Street North, where the boutiques, restaurants and galleries are flooded with people, especially during popular monthly art crawls, Barton Street East remains a different world.

Storefronts are boarded up. Sex workers ply the corners in broad daylight. Open drug deals are commonplace. A massive orange brick jail looms in the background, next to a hospital where more than 800 people have been admitted for overdoses so far this year.

But inside the exposed brick walls of 541 – a bright, cheery space with wooden harvest tables and hanging plants and chalkboard menus – people of all backgrounds, from all corners of the city, eat together. More than a restaurant, it is a unique social enterprise, fuelled by, and wholly dependent on, the generosity of the community.

It works like this: paying customers can buy buttons – worth one dollar each – that are put into a jar at the counter, available for others to redeem for a meal of their own. People can take a maximum of five buttons a day, then choose among the many items that sell for $5 and under.

Sue Carr is pictured at 541 Eatery and Exchange in Hamilton, On.

It is a tangible, feel-good, pay-it-forward system. But the rules are firm, even when they are heartbreaking to enforce. And they can be, in a city with a poverty rate of 18 per cent. It doesn’t matter how many tables of hungry people they have; if the button jar is empty, they have to wait.

Executive director Reverend Sue Carr can remember how difficult it was in the early days to say no. The staff and volunteers would ask: Can’t we just give them some soup?

“We can’t,” she had to tell the staff. “Or we’d be closed.”

It’s a charity (operated by Burlington’s Compass Point Bible Church), but it is not a soup kitchen.

“It’s not us giving this away,” Ms. Carr says. “I mean, obviously we are altruistic, but this is the generosity of the community providing for itself. If people only ever take, it doesn’t work.”

Terry Barron wipes the lips of his friend Joanne Doucet in 541 Eatery and Exchange on Barton Street in Hamilton. (Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)

It is that palpable need, after all, that in turn fuels the giving.

A pumpkin spice latte (available for $3.50) is hard to swallow when there is a hungry elderly woman at the next table who would love a cup of tea. Or a child crying because he doesn’t understand why he can’t have a milkshake like the other kids (to buy it would mean no sandwich). Or a teenager praying there will be a few buttons in the jar at noon so that he can grab something for lunch.

These scenarios are uncomfortable – but that is not a bad thing, Ms. Carr argues. She wants customers and society in general to be confronted by privilege, to be aware of the needs of their community. Especially as the former industrial town celebrates its growth, it is important to remember that not everyone benefits from gentrification.

“You know what, you should feel bad about it,” Ms. Carr says. “It is good for us to be reminded of that. We shouldn’t be able to push things to the side and ignore them.”

Some of 541 Barton’s customers are not only worse off, they are the worst off.

The goal of the people who started 541 Eatery and Exchange three years ago in 2013 in Hamilton was to create a restaurant/meeting place for people in the neighbourhood with homemade wholesome food that they could afford. (Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)

It was about a year ago that Jessica, a victim of abuse who asked to remain anonymous for her safety, first heard about the eatery and the button program. She was homeless and fresh out of her teens, struggling with substance-abuse issues. As she went up to the counter to order for the first time, she found it refreshingly dignifying. She was ordering off the same menu, at the same counter, as everyone else – she just happened to be paying with buttons instead of cash.

“To think that someone was willing to pay for a meal for someone else, it was just so nice,” she remembers.

Today, Jessica, 21, can be found on the other side of the counter as a volunteer. She has been clean more than a year, and she’s landed a part-time job at a smoothie joint as a result of the kitchen experience she gained volunteering at 541 Barton. She shares her lived experience with customers, hoping to help others find the same hope that she did here.

“I feel like people have accepted the realities of Barton Street, but they don’t see the possibilities,” she says. “Some of the people here, on the streets would kill each other. But in here, they sit down for a meal beside each other.”

She still uses buttons now and again when money is tight. But she donates as often as she can, too.

Ryder Fasulo, 7, reaches into the Button Bank at 541 Eatery and Exchange to buy a button for a dollar which will then turn into currency (valued at a dollar) that can be used by someone in need, towards a purchase of a coffee or a meal. Five buttons can be used per day per person. (Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail)

That is the beauty of the program, Ms. Carr says – the give and take.

Around 8,500 buttons are donated and redeemed each month – roughly a quarter of the eatery’s sales. If everyone takes the maximum five, that is enough for 1,700 meals. The staff have been blown away by their success, but are still overwhelmed by need. The take jar is frequently empty.

Ms. Carr, who has worked as a chaplain on Barton Street for years, at the Hamilton General Hospital and Mission Services, is no longer surprised by what she sees.

“I don’t see it as eye-opening anymore,” she says with a shrug. They see kids, alone, roaming the streets at all hours. Vulnerable sex workers who have been beaten. And they have regulars that go missing – people who have died or gone to jail.

“But I’d temper that with how resilient people are,” she says. “How generous.”

The bulk of the people in the 541 kitchen are volunteers. There is only a handful of paid staff, who, Ms. Carr notes, are paid a living wage. They rely on volunteers – often customers looking to give back – to fill the gaps. Sometimes, in a pinch, that means putting a call out on social media for dishwashers.

Long-time neighbourhood resident Sarah Bonin, 33, has watched the former bank transform into a beloved community hub – one that, in addition to food, offers after-school programs and workshops and a community garden. As a single mom, she has been grateful for the affordable healthy menu in an area that, for a long time, was a bit of a food desert.

Like Jessica, she has also become a kitchen volunteer. “I saw what a great hub this was becoming, and I thought I had something to offer,” she says.

“It’s like a family here.”

Just like the mish-mash of colourful buttons sitting in the jar, Ms. Carr points out, all of the customers – regardless of their shape or size or where they came from – are worth the same here.

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