March 29, 2013

Editorial: Serving up compassion


---- — For people who have never made a living in the business world, a limited pay-what-you-want proposition at a national restaurant chain seems logical enough.

Since big companies make big money, you might reason, they can afford to sell for less than usual.

But people in business know otherwise: Panera Bread is taking a bold, compassionate step to ease the hunger problem in the St. Louis area and still try to make a profit.

Here’s Panera’s offer: Buy a bowl of turkey chili, which sells for $5.89 tax included, and pay whatever you’d like. If you can afford the $5.89, by all means hand it over; if you can’t, pay what you can.

That means that people who are hungry but have little or no money can eat for whatever they have. And the turkey chili is a gold mine of nutrition, promising a day’s worth in one sitting.

Panera is taking a big chance, of course: It is hoping that people of sufficient means don’t wander in and demand a one-cent lunch. (Incidentally, this is an experimental offer, good only in the St. Louis area. It isn’t being offered anywhere else, such as in Plattsburgh.)

Panera has a history of trying to combat hunger where its 1,600 outlets are situated, donating tens of millions of dollars worth of unsold baked goods to feed the hungry. The Plattsburgh store provides food to local soup kitchens and also participates in fundraising efforts by local nonprofits.

Hunger and homelessness certainly exist in the North Country, but on a different scale than what can be found in metropolitan areas. Those in need in this region generally take the form of a single-parent family with the head person unemployed or working at a low-pay job.

A number of local communities host food-shelf sites where people in need can get free groceries. Also, food drives abound, such as in collection bins in grocery stores and fundraisers sponsored by generous groups throughout the area. Churches and organizations such as the Salvation Army also do their part to reduce hunger.

Because you don’t see people living huddled under bridges doesn’t mean hunger and homelessness don’t exist around here.

Panera Bread’s initiative is clearly a product of the big heart of the people in charge. Companies such as Panera have to make a healthy profit; they can’t compromise on that. Publicly traded firms owe their first allegiance to their stockholders.

So, besides giving away unsold goods, a new trial arrangement is being introduced, to Panera’s credit. It will work if people able to pay don’t abuse the offer. Who knows — maybe some equally big-hearted patrons will pay more, in the spirit in which the policy was established.

We hope it works and that other national food chains consider similar efforts to help the homeless. Panera’s offer is a gutsy proposal and an ingenious precedent.