October 23, 2021

‘Pay It Forward’ meal wall offers food for those in need

Kindness in advance

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Cyndi Hartnett looks over a “Pay it Forward” wall at her diner, Frank and Mary’s, on Port Watson Street in Cortland. It started a couple of weeks ago when a man came in looking to trade work for a meal. Now, customers will buy a meal and post the receipt on the wall for hungry people to use.

It was about two weeks ago when a young man came into Frank and Mary’s Diner in Cortland asking for a job so he could buy a meal, said owner Cyndi Hartnett.

Taken back by his humility, Hartnett gave him a meal for free and he went on his way.

Feeling inspired, Hartnett wanted to find a way to give to those in need. After seeing Facebook posts from restaurants in other states use Pay it Forward Walls, she began her own at the diner.

“We said, ‘Let’s just do it and see what happens,’” she said.

Two weeks later, Hartnett and guests have contributed to the wall to provide free meals for those in need.

The wall works by guests paying for meals in advance for others, Hartnett said. The receipts are then attached to the diner’s Pay it Forward Wall, where people who need food but don’t have the money to pay for it can choose a meal.

Hartnett said she put some up on the house to start with, but guests have contributed since. As of Friday, there were four meal receipts on the wall.

Hartnett noted that on Feb. 20, between four and six meals were purchased by guests and added to the wall.

“It was like, ‘Wow, look at this,’” she said.

Christella Yonta, the executive director of the United Way for Cortland County, said these random acts of kindness are greatly appreciated during the pandemic.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea for people to get a warm meal who may not be able to,” she said.

The demand for food donations has increased during the pandemic as many people have lost their jobs or had their hours cut, leading to less income for groceries, Yonta said.

The United Way for Cortland County has worked with organizations such as the Food Bank of Central New York to have food giveaways throughout the pandemic. The most recent food giveaways were in February in Marathon and Homer.

People living paycheck to paycheck have especially had to make harder choices when it comes to paying for utilities or groceries. Initiatives like the Pay it Forward Wall can help alleviate some of those needs, Yonta said.

“It’s a means to help somebody out,” she said.

Moreso, Yonta continued, for the person paying for the meal, “the kindness makes as much difference as the meal.”

Hartnett said she’ll continue to have the wall up and hopes to see it grow.

She hopes it can continue on a regular basis as a way for “somebody to help somebody.”