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Panera expands hunger fight with pay-what-you-can chili in St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Winter weather has stretched this year’s chili-eating season into spring. But even after temperatures warm up, chili will continue as a good choice for philanthropists, and those struggling to find enough to eat.

Beginning today, Panera Bread offers its turkey chili in a sourdough bread bowl as a pay-what-you-will item in each of its 48 St. Louis-area stores, including those in the Metro East. The suggested price is $5.89, including tax. Those with financial difficulties can pay less, or even get a free serving -- no questions asked.

Those who are able to pay more than the suggested price are encouraged to do so. Even if you order a different menu item altogether, you can donate to the program, called Panera’s Meal of Shared Responsibility. Any money exceeding Panera’s costs will go to Operation Food Search, a local organization dedicated to feeding the hungry.

In 2010, the company debuted its first nonprofit Panera Cares cafe in Clayton. All of its menu items from pastries to paninis are pay-what-you-will. For nearly three years the cafe has been self-sustaining, with any excess money funding a job-training effort for at-risk youth.

Panera subsequently opened four more nonprofits in Detroit, Portland, Chicago and Boston. If the new Shared Responsibility turkey chili program goes well in St. Louis, its expansion into other markets is also possible.

The turkey chili is a nutrient-rich new menu item, according to Panera. It provides 56 percent of the fiber and 34 percent of the protein needed to fulfill the daily minimum requirement for a 2,000-calorie diet. There’s no vegetarian alternative because that would make it difficult to chart the program's results, according to Kate Antonacci, Panera’s director of societal impact initiatives.

“If we were to substitute it out for anything and everything on the menu, it wouldn’t give us an accurate reading,” Antonacci said.

Panera does not expect to have any issues with large numbers of people who can’t pay, overwhelming its stores in search of a free or low-cost meal.

Food insecurity, defined as a lack of certainty about consistent food sources, is not a constant state for many people, Antonacci explained. In the St. Louis area, more than 45,000 people struggle with hunger at a given time, according to Panera’s figures. This population includes the homeless but it's also a much wider group, whose needs fluctuate. Many are homeowners with college degrees who are struggling with unemployment.

“If you lose that job, your rent doesn’t go away, your electric bill doesn’t go away,” Antonacci said. “Food is one of the first things to fall off.”

The new program is designed not only to feed the hungry but to start a conversation, perhaps a movement.

“How willing are people in St. Louis to help each other?” Antonacci asked.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.