Unstructured Finance

Panera’s pick-what-you-pay cafe holds its own

panera2Panera Bread’s hometown experiment in altruism appears to be working.

About eight weeks after opening Panera Cares — a nonprofit restaurant that invites customers to take what they need and pay what they can — executives say it appears to be on-track to covering its costs and becoming self-sufficient.

“It’s a fascinating test of humanity,” Panera Executive Chairman Ron Shaich told Reuters.

“On average, we’re coming in around 85 percent of the average retail price,” said Shaich, whom Panera Bread’s CEO has dubbed the “guiding light” of Panera Cares.

St. Louis-based Panera Bread provides the space to house the experimental cafe, which is run by a nonprofit group that grapples with the same labor and food costs as any other restaurant.

Shaich hopes to open two more Panera Cares cafes before the year end, likely in other Midwestern cities or potentially in the Pacific Northwest.

Millions Fed: some solutions close at hand

More than a billion people go hungry each day — about the same number as did in the late 1950s. That’s both a “tragedy on a grand scale” and an “astounding success,” according to a new report called “Millions Fed,” produced by the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
While the absolute number of hungry people is the same as it was 40 years ago, the proportion is dramatically smaller — one in six today, compared to one in three then, the report said. It illustrates 20 successful case studies where progress has been made in the fight against hunger.

Some solutions come from science: new varieties of wheat, rice, beans, maize, cassava, millet and sorghum. Others deal with markets, government policies, or the environment.
Two farmers from the Sahel region of Africa, oft plagued by drought and famine, visited Washington last month to talk about solutions they found close to home — one of the success stories trumpeted in “Millions Fed.”
Almost 30 years ago, farmers in Burkina Faso experimented with a traditional technique called “zai,” digging pits in their plots and adding manure to improve soils before the rainy season, resulting in dramatically better yields.
Yacouba“There was a long period of drought in my village,” Yacouba Sawadogo told reporters. “Many people left because their life was very, very difficult. But I decided to stay,” he said, explaining how he taught others the technique.
In Niger, farmers manage trees on their land to prevent erosion, improve yields, and provide livestock fodder. Before, women had to walk 6 miles to get firewood, but now they have enough for themselves and to sell to others, said Sakina Mati, who coordinates tree projects in six villages.
The projects have improved 13 million acres of farmland and fed 3 million people, said Oxfam America, a development group that works with the farmers.
It’s food for thought as rich nations ramp up efforts to help small farmers grow more food in poor countries. “In our approach toward solutions and programs, we really need to listen as well as talk,” said Gawain Kripke of Oxfam.
“Solutions don’t always come from us.”


PHOTO CREDIT: Yacouba Sawadogo on his farm in Burkina Faso /Courtesy of Oxfam America

But will shareholders back hunger fight?

The world needs to spend $83 billion a year to ensure it can produce enough food amid a changing climate for its growing population by 2050, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates.
Rich countries have pledged more than $22 billion over three years to help small, impoverished farmers grow and sell more by investing in seeds, fertilizer, roads and marketing infrastructure.
GATES/Philanthropists have thrown their weight behind the goal. Bill Gates challenged research companies last week to make new technologies available to small farmers without charging them royalties. (Click on the link at the bottom to see his full speech to the World Food Prize forum.)

Corporations have said they see themselves as part of the fight too, particularly when it comes to research. But Robert Thompson, a former World Bank official, says he’s pessimistic the private sector will be able to contribute enough. “Their shareholders won’t stand for them solving all the problems of the developing countries, and giving it away,” he told Reuters.
Thompson“It’s going to take subsidies or at least a public sector contribution to engage their research horsepower,” said Thompson, now an agriculture professor with the University of Illinois, who has pushed for more spending on agricultural development for 40 years.
Agribusiness should be motivated to get involved in developing countries because they represent a future growth market for their products, Thompson said. “They should be willing to accept lower return on their own investments as an investment in the longer term, but we have to keep the short time horizon of the U.S. investment community in mind,” he said.
“Shareholders are brutal on companies that don’t meet their short-term profit expectations. In that sense, perhaps some of the European companies like Syngenta, BASF or Bayer … may have a little more license, if you will, to take a longer-term perspective than some of the U.S. publicly traded companies.”

Below: Bill Gates addresses World Food Prize forum in Des Moines, Iowa.

Less talk, more action needed on food security

World Food Day is Friday, and on opposite sides of the developed world, two large groups of experts have gathered to talk about the risks of food insecurity and what should be done to reduce hunger. In Rome, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization is mulling how to feed the world in 2050, and in Des Moines, Iowa, the World Food Prize forum will focus on the role of food in national security.

Last year’s spike in food prices raised the political profile of food security. G8 nations and the United States have pledged money and action. I spoke with Per Pinstrup-Andersen, an agricultural economist at Cornell University and a Food Prize laureate, to get his take on what that means. Here are some excerpts. 
pinstrup_andersenQ. What do you think is different now in terms of the political will to address this problem? 
A. I think there is an increase in the political will. However, past initatives or past rhetoric of that kind didn’t really result in much action. I’m very concerned that we’re going to see a lot of additional rhetoric and a lot of plans being designed and discussed during the next year or so, but probably not very much action. Insofar as developing country governments are concerned, I doubt if the political will has changed at all. There is a lot of talk. But unless the developing country governments decide to prioritize the eradication or at least the amelioration of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, not much is going to happen.

The best way of doing that in the long run is to invest in rural areas, in infrastructure, in agricultural research, in primary health care. Look, we know what needs to be done, it’s not a big secret, it’s just that the governments have other priorities. The World Bank can put in a lot of money, and so can the bilaterals, but for this to have a sustainable impact, the governments of these countries have to step up to the plate. 
Q. What can be done to encourage that to happen? 
A. I wish I knew. The governments of most developing countries — and it’s not all of them — are ignoring the Millenium Development Goals, they’re ignoring the World Food Summit goals. Their main concern is to maintain legitimacy so they can hold on to power, and the rural poor are not threatening them. 
Q. In the face of that, what can donor countries do to make the best of their investment? 
A. I think all we can really do from the outside is to try to make up for the deficiencies of the national governments by bringing some money and some technical assistance to bear on these problems and to try to convince governments to work with us on this so that over a period of time the government will gradually take over these things. 
cQ. How do you think the new U.S. food security initiative will play into global efforts to address hunger? 
A. One of my concerns is that we once again are going to spend a lot of time and effort and money on developing plans. We’ve got so many plans developed for almost every country in the world. We now need to pick them up and put them into action.

Will food banks need a bailout?

Job losses and rising costs for food and housing are driving up demand for emergency meals from charities and food pantries around the United States. But donations aren’t keeping up.

Demand in the Los Angeles area has risen 41 percent from a year ago, said Michael Flood, president and chief executive at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.

The food bank currently provides the equivalent of 560,000 meals a week to local charities, said Flood. Compared with last year, the LA Food Bank is delivering 33 percent more food to the 875 charitable agencies it serves, but that’s still falling short of need by 8 percent.