When Community Cafe opened near Raleigh last year, locals in the small town welcomed the new restaurant with open arms.
They flocked to the bright green building to buy cheap Southern staples and to support the cafe’s charitable mission: to provide training and jobs for people in rehab who were recovering from addiction.
“We’re cooking what the community wants to eat,” chef and rehab participant Jerry Knutson said in a local news article at the time. “Biscuits and gravy, omelets and eggs – country breakfast at a good price.”
There’s a reason Community Cafe’s prices are so low. Former participants at the rehab told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that many of the menu items were purchased with their food stamps.
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The cafe is operated by Recovery Connections Community, a local drug rehab program. Under federal law, some rehabs are allowed to use their clients’ food stamps to buy food for people in their program. Recovery Connections has permission to do so.
But instead of buying food for their clients, Recovery Connections’ leaders, Phillip and Jennifer Warren, used the food stamps to purchase food for themselves, more than two dozen former participants said. Five sources said they also used the food stamps to stock the restaurant.
It’s the latest revelation in an ongoing Reveal investigation into problems at Recovery Connections Community. Rather than providing treatment, the Warrens put participants to work without pay, 16 hours per day, as untrained caregivers at adult care homes for elderly and disabled people. Reveal found that rehab participants were accused of stealing drugs and abusing patients at the homes.
Meanwhile, the rehab’s founders solicited donations in the rehab’s name, only to keep the gifts for themselves. Neither of the Warrens responded to requests for comment.
Dominique Shivers is among the former participants who said she witnessed the Warrens misusing food stamps. When Shivers started working as an unpaid cook at Community Cafe in 2017, she said she and others accompanied Jennifer Warren as she used their food stamps to buy hot dogs, eggs, milk and other ingredients for the restaurant.
“Me and Jennifer would go to Sam's Club and get a big dolly and shop on people’s food stamps,” said Heather Fox, who attended Recovery Connections at the time.
Shivers and others then cooked the food and sold it to the public. Rehab participants said they frequently went hungry while Phillip and Jennifer Warren used their food stamps to purchase food for themselves.
“We got $200 a month in food stamps, but yet we never had any food,” said Cindy Gilbert, a former participant. Jennifer Warren has a history of misusing food stamps. When she ran another rehab program, she was accused of using her clients’ food stamps to stock her own kitchen while there was “little food” for participants, according to records from a state investigation.
She eventually lost her counseling license in 2012 for this and other unethical behavior. She later pleaded guilty in 2015 to financial assistance fraud for lying about her income and illegally collecting thousands of dollars’ worth of food stamps.
At least eight North Carolina agencies have launched investigations into the abuses Reveal exposed at Recovery Connections.
A spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, Chris Mackey, declined to say whether the agency would investigate the Warrens’ misuse of food stamps.
The Community Cafe remains open. Last month, it celebrated its one year anniversary with $1 hot dogs.