South Side Roots Cafe is a lunch destination and much more.

South Side Roots Cafe is a lunch destination and much more.

The mission of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank is to "end hunger one nourishing meal at a time and to co-create a sustainable community where everyone thrives."

South Side Roots Cafe epitomizes that mission. Located in the lower level of the former Reeb Elementary School off Parsons Avenue, Roots hosts a free community dinner once a week and serves healthful lunches Monday through Friday that are inexpensive-free, even, to those who can't afford it. What's more, the lunches are not just decent and healthful-they're (mostly) delicious.

The Mid-Ohio Foodbank distributes more than 66 million pounds of food per year across 20 counties, which translates to 149,000 meals per day. Remarkably, nearly 50 percent of that food is fresh and much of it locally sourced, grown on Mid-Ohio's two 5-acre urban farms, one about two miles from the cafe and another on the West Side.

Big, clean and bright, with simple cafeteria-style tables and chairs, Roots can hold almost 80 guests. The building also houses 14 not-for-profit organizations, including a satellite office of the Godman Guild and the South Side's first Boys and Girls Club. It's a one-stop resource for the community. In addition to serving meals, Roots also provides job training in the cafeteria.

Step up to the cafe counter and order from one of the super friendly employees (who, by the way, are paid $15 per hour, so there's no tipping). You'll get a number, and your food and drinks will be delivered to your table.

Among the delicious offerings are a chicken salad sandwich ($6) on hefty sourdough bread. The sandwich is substantial-the mix of chunks of chicken with celery, onion, toasted almonds and mayo is creamy, crunchy and full of flavor. Unlike so many chicken salads, the meat of the bird is not obscured by the other ingredients-it tastes like chicken. The BLT ($8) is big, too, with another hearty bread (10-grain) and at least six slices of a smoky, maple-flavored bacon. Sandwiches come with a seasonal side, which on one day might be a little cup of barley and bits of crisp veggies in a pleasing vinaigrette, and on another day might be the same preparation, but with quinoa in place of barley.

Another sandwich I recommend is the cafe's take on the Reuben called Jive Turkey, grilled on rye with sweet and sour braised cabbage, Swiss cheese and pickles ($8). The black bean burger was disappointing-the too-soft texture (like refried beans) is off-putting.

For heartier fare, the current menu has a grilled pork chop with buttery mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli-the meal sports a rich, well-made pan gravy and is only $6. Whole wheat penne is the pasta used in a plain alfredo sauce-the best part of the dish is the crisp chunks and slivers of zucchini, yellow squash, carrot and red bell peppers.

Each day brings at least two lunch specials. Prices ranges from $7 to $11, and you can see what's on offer because the chefs prepare a sample each day. One special was a substantial slab of meatloaf peppered with bits of vegetable. It was moist and hearty and almost great; for me, it just needed a little salt. (That said, I have to commend the chefs here for a light hand with salt.) Another fine special was filet of blackened catfish over a sweet potato and veggie hash. The fish was moist, too-not easy to do with this lean fish-and the hash was at least healthy.

While the regular menu is set to change around the time of this publication, we hear the chicken salad and BLT will stay, and the meatloaf will make its way from frequent special to the daily menu.

Each day there are at least two soups offered at $3 per bowl. One day's offering was tangy roasted tomato thickened with bread. It was terrific. But another time, a bowl of chicken soup with pasta was too bland-it needed spice, salt, veggies and more. A third try brought a Mexican-style soup with corn, peppers, ground beef and onions. It was well-seasoned, but not particularly interesting.

After having sampled both the huge chocolate iced brownie and the big soft chocolate chip cookie, I may have to drive down to Roots just for a sugar fix now and then-these two state fair-worthy sweets may not be good for you, but they sure are good.

No alcohol is served, but there are juices, coffee and tea-and a daily smoothie special or two. The smoothies I tried-orange banana and strawberry banana-were excellent.

Of course, it should be noted here that reviewing the food served at the Roots Cafe misses the larger point. Here is a place serving a neighborhood of nearly 7,000 in a pay-as-you-can manner. Its purpose is far more important than its palatability.

The cafe is managed by the helpful Nicole Marsh. Executive chef at Roots is Jason Johnson, who graduated from culinary school at Sullivan University in Kentucky, then worked in food services at OSU's Wexner Medical Center before coming to Roots. His commitment to the mission here is evident in the cafe's creative specials and his efforts to produce not only healthy dishes, but delicious ones.

On Tuesday nights from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Roots serves a free community meal. While it's open to anyone, the dinner is attended mostly by folks in the local community, where for some a free meal and the fellowship is a blessing. In the year since its opening, Roots has served nearly 10,000 Tuesday night meals. Volunteers are always welcome for cooking, serving and cleaning at these dinners. One night several Franklin County Common Pleas judges pitched in.

Across the hall from the cafe is the market, where you will find a modest selection of fresh produce and other foodstuffs-some canned and bottled, but nary a Dorito or Little Debbie, remaining true to its mission statement that stipulates "nourishing meals." The market is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and like the cafe, has some volunteer work available to be exchanged for food.

Consistent with the foodbank's mission, the cafe's paying customers have the option to "pay it forward" for another's meal (which is tax deductible). Paying it forward is a good feeling and so is treating yourself to a lunch at Roots.