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Restaurants Where You Only Pay What You Can Afford? A Visionary Way to Bring Good Food to the Poor Is Taking Off

When the founder of Panera Bread opened his Panera Cares pay-what-you-can cafe, the model was a huge success.

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In Santa Rosa, California, Evelyn Cheatham took the reverse route and got to a slightly different place. The first step was setting up Worth Our Weight, a culinary apprentice program for at-risk youth. “Developing great lives through good food” is the order of the day there. The tuition-free, volunteer-run program accepts young people between the ages of 16-24 “who have faced major challenges in their lives, including foster care, difficulties with the law, homelessness, and significant family disruption.” Though Cheatham offers training in the culinary and restaurant management arts, imperative life lessons are gleaned, as well, including team work, accountability, mutual respect, and responsibility. Basically, WOW changes lives in deeply tangible ways.

Though they ask for a fair donation in exchange for the food they serve, the café, which is open a limited number of hours each week, operates at a net loss. Still, it provides an invaluable service as a community outreach tool and more. According to Cheatham, “The café is a natural component of the program. It sets the program apart from being a school. It is the natural extension of a vocational training program. The feedback from a customer provides us with an instant learning experience.” So popular are WOW's weekend brunches, celebrity chef Guy Fieri featured them on his Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives – the first non-profit restaurant ever showcased on the Food Network show.

No matter what the means, the end goal is the same in each of these cases: feeding people as a community service. And, when nearly 15 percent of households in the U.S. are faced with food insecurity, that's no small goal. In fact, it's bigger than any one person, any one project. But, considering the fact that Americans waste upwards of 25 percent of their food, it's not hard to formulate an equation where everyone gets to eat. It simply requires using an algorithm rooted in the common good or, perhaps, springing from the undeniable reciprocity of the Golden Rule. That is exactly what is happening here. These folks at the heart of the movement understand the momentous task at hand and are intent upon doing their part to keep things moving forward. As Cerreta observed, “This is spiritual franchising. I want to create a big enough snowball that it keeps going without me.”

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Community kitchens, cafés, and restaurants to support around the U.S.:
A Better World Café - 19 South 2nd Ave., Highland Park, New Jersey 
Café 180 - 3315 South Broadway, Englewood, Colorado
Comfort Café - 3945 Tennyson Street, Denver, Colorado
Community Table Café - 418 Cerrillos Road (in the Design Center), Santa Fe, New Mexico
Karma Kitchen - at Taste of Himalayas Restaurant, 1700 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, California
Karma Kitchen - at Klay Oven Restaurant, 414 N. Orleans Street, Chicago, Illinois
La Cocina - 2948 Folsom San Francisco, California 
One World Salt Lake City - 41 South 300 East, Salt Lake City, Utah 
One World Spokane - 1804 East Sprague Ave., Spokane, Washington 99202 
Panera Cares Community Café - 22208 Michigan Avenue, Dearborn, Michigan
Panera Cares Community Café - 4121 NE Halsey Street, Portland, Oregon
Potager - 315 South Mesquite St., Arlington, Texas 
Ransom Café - 7485 Airport Blvd., Mobile, Alabama 
SAME (So All May Eat) Café - 2023 East Colfax Ave., Denver, Colorado 80206 
Soul Kitchen Community Restaurant - 121 Drs. James Parker Blvd., Red Bank, New Jersey 
St. Louis Bread Company Cares - 10th Central Ave., Clayton, Missouri
Table Grace Café - 1611 1/2 Farnam Street, Omaha, Nebraska  
The Forge - Abilene's Community Kitchen 2801 S. 1st Street, Abilene, Texas
Three Stone Hearth Community-Supported Kitchen - 1581 University Avenue, Berkeley, California
Worth Our Weight - 1021 Hahman Drive, Santa Rosa, California

 
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