When Ji Hye Kim founded Miss Kim, a Korean restaurant on North Fifth Avenue, she had her eyes set on giving back to the Ann Arbor community. Now, with a new sliding scale payment program, Kim is fighting food insecurity, one meal at a time.

The restaurant will be offering its 17 most popular dishes at four different price points ranging from free to 1.5 times the regular price when ordered online and by phone, giving customers the opportunity to pay what they can for their meals. Those who choose the “Pay It Forward” price will be helping to pay for several other people’s meals. 

The payment program is being funded by RAISE, High Road Restaurants’ newest grant, which awards $5,000 to grantees and should be self-sustaining with profits from the sliding scale menu.

Kim, chef and managing partner of Miss Kim, told The Michigan Daily that she opted to use the grant money to fund the sliding scale menu rather than donating a fixed amount of food, because she believes it will benefit more people and allow for the program to run for a longer period of time.

“If you cannot afford anything, there is an option for you to get the meal for free, but if you can afford something, then you can get the meal at 50%,” Kim said. “Our food cost is about 25%, so that means that if somebody pays half, I can feed two more people with that.”

Hannah Uebele, co-President of the University of Michigan chapter of FeelGood, a student organization dedicated to ending global hunger, said she hopes Miss Kim’s generosity will inspire other Ann Arbor restaurants to begin similar programs.

“I’m really excited to see what happens because I think it’ll be a little indicative of the culture that we have in Ann Arbor … I’m really interested to see how many people would take that initiative to (Pay-It-Forward) versus how many people who tap into a discounted price,” Uebele said. “I think it’s going to be really exciting, especially because, depending on how it turns out, it might inspire some other businesses to take a similar strategy.”

Food insecurity is a prevalent issue across the country and an even bigger issue on the U-M campus. 10.2% of Americans face food insecurity, and, at the University, more than 30% of students struggle to find enough nutritious food every day.

Food insecurity has a disproportionate impact on low-income communities of Color and has consequences on mental and physical health as well as school and work performance. As people develop health issues and chronic disease due to food insecurity, their medical expenses increase, perpetuating the cyclical relationship between poverty, health and food insecurity.

With U.S. inflation reaching a record high in July — the largest increase in over 40 years — prices of food have increased across the nation. In the past year, food prices in the state of Michigan have increased by 13.9%.

Uebele said she has witnessed the effects of food insecurity firsthand and said it can have social implications, especially for students. She hopes Miss Kim’s pricing strategy will alleviate students’ social stress when eating out.

“As a University student, so many social events, or going out with friends, center around food,” Uebele said. “If someone’s unable to participate in that or feels the strain of those kinds of events, then this is an excellent way to address that specific concern because (they’ll) be able to go out with friends and not have it be as big of a deal to get their friends to go to somewhere that is affordable to them.”

In an email to The Daily, Kareem Rifai, LSA senior and CSG spokesman, wrote that CSG President Noah Zimmerman, and LSA senior, and CSG Vice President Jackie Hillman, and LSA senior, are committed to fighting food insecurity at the University.

“The President and Vice President hope that the University will continue to support and expand services like the Maize and Blue cupboard,” Rifai wrote. “Our administration is eager to collaborate in a multilateral effort with the University’s Executive Officers, the Board of Regents and student organizations to help tackle food insecurity on campus.”

Miss Kim’s new payment method is not the first community initiative the restaurant has pursued. For the past several years, Kim has partnered with organizations including Food Gatherers and Ypsilanti Meals on Wheels to donate meals to frontline workers at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan hospital. The restaurant also has a “Give to the Community” fund that customers can donate to: For every $15, Miss Kim delivers a meal to someone in need.

LSA senior Mary Keden, a Miss Kim employee, has been working at the restaurant since July of this year. She said Miss Kim also offers free meals to employees and an additional discount on takeout orders.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Keden said. “After a shift, that’s the best thing ever.”

With the sliding scale payment system, there are no requirements for choosing a specific price — all prices will be available to all customers, and no documentation is necessary. Kim said she hopes this will make it easier for people to choose the price that fits their needs.

“It’s not a cheaper menu, it’s regular menu items at the same proportion, and the staff doesn’t know whether it’s a sliding scale menu or regular menu,” Kim said. “We’re trying to get rid of the stigma (around food insecurity).”

Kim said she hopes the sliding scale payment program will be a permanent feature of the Miss Kim menu.

“Even though we’re not making any profit from (the program) — we got a grant for it, and we’re hoping that grant will run this program on its own — that doesn’t mean we want to have more costs other than food costs,” Kim said. 

Uebele said she is optimistic about the program, though she is uncertain about its sustainability.

“The biggest challenge that I see is the burden that’s going to be put on Miss Kim financially and labor-wise given that (the new payment program) might divert some of people’s spending habits from their normal price meals, and there’s a concern of people taking advantage unnecessarily,” Uebele said. “If that happens, then all of a sudden, the business no longer becomes as profitable.”

Kim said she wants to contribute to the eradication of, and challenge the stigma around, food insecurity.

“My goal is to be able to share our food, and, in the process of doing that, with either no price or lower price, help with any food insecurity in our county,” Kim said.

Managing Editor Kate Weiland can be reached at kmwblue@umich.edu.