Oklahoma restaurant offers free meal to dumpster diver: How restaurants help the hungry

Many restaurants around the world offer programs to help the needy and to allow customers to help each other. Here's how some of the programs work.

Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo
In this March 12, 2015 photo a line forms at the entrance to The Little Beet during lunchtime at the restaurant in New York. For years, healthy chains have sputtered and flopped but The Little Beet chef Franklin Becker, who’s opening seven more restaurants in the New York area this year, says the demand is growing. “That’s what people want to eat. They want honest foods now.”

When Ashley Jiron, owner of the Warr Acres, Okla.-based restaurant P.B. Jams, noticed that someone had been going through the restaurant’s dumpsters looking for food, she decided to offer the stranger a meal. P.B. Jams is one of many restaurants around the world that have extended a helping hand to the hungry.

Jiron posted a sign on the dumpster as well as the restaurant door offering the person a free peanut butter and jelly sandwich, fresh vegetables, and a glass of water, no questions asked, because they are “a human being, and worth more than a meal from a dumpster.”

“I think we’ve all been in that position where we needed someone’s help and we just needed someone to extend that hand and if I can be that one person to extend that hand to another human being then I will definitely do it,” Jiron told KFOR News.

While the person has not yet come in to claim their PB&J, Jiron is determined to keep the sign up until they do, realizing that pride and embarrassment could be keeping them away. This has been an issue for other restaurants that attempt to feed those who struggle to afford food.

Panera Bread began offering a pay-what-you-can option for its turkey chili in 2013. The dish had a $5.89 suggested price, but customers were encouraged to pay more if they could afford it so that those who genuinely couldn't would be able to get the filling meal for less, or for free. However, after an initial surge of interest in the program, customers forgot that it was an option. Many Panera locations are in affluent areas where there were fewer people to benefit from reduced price meals.

However, the idea has caught on around the world and proven more successful elsewhere, including SAME Cafe in Denver, Colo.; Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, N.J.; Pay As You Please in Killarney, Ireland; and De Culinaire Werkplaats, Amsterdam.

In Philadelphia, Mason Wartman, who owns Rosa’s Fresh Pizza, adopted the policy that, for $1, customers can pay for a slice of pizza for the next person who comes in and cannot afford it. Wartman puts post-it notes on the wall to represent each prepaid slice. Those in need can come in, take a post-it, and trade it for a slice of pizza. Customers have donated 8,500 slices of pizza in the first nine months of the program, and the restaurant feeds 30 to 40 homeless people every day.

According to Wartman, who was interviewed on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" in January, the program has created a culture of paying it forward. Some customers who were previously homeless and have since pulled themselves out of extreme poverty have returned to Rosa’s to buy a slice for another in need.

In Doha, Qatar, one of the richest places on earth, the restaurant Zaiqa offers free food to those who cannot afford it. Owners Shadab and Nishab Khan, serve a large population of migrant workers in the industrial area of Doha, which fuels the country’s expansion at the expense of the workers who are often not paid on time, or at all.

The brothers have also seen people refuse to take the food for nothing, and are working to make the process of accepting free food less embarrassing for their customers.

"We are putting a refrigerator outside, so this refrigerator won't have a lock. It will be facing the road and it will have packets of food with dates on them,” Shadab Khan told Yahoo News. “So anybody who wants to take it, he doesn't have to come inside.”

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