A Mission of Bread and Hope

A Mission of Bread and Hope

Paul Menzel makes it his mission to feed 45 people with Panera Bread fare. But it's about more than the food—he and his helpers provide hope to homeless tent communities.

Each Sunday morning, Paul Menzel steers his 1993 blue Plymouth Voyager van as close as he can to a dozen homeless tent communities in Des Moines, Iowa. Because many are hidden in the woods near the Raccoon River, "I walk the rest of the way," says Paul, 55, a writer-producer of TV commercials. The van holds what he picked up the night before from the Panera Bread bakery-cafe in downtown Des Moines and its Day-End Dough-NationTM program: unsold bread and baked goods.

Breaking Bread, Building Relationships

Paul began his weekly mission the weekend after Thanksgiving in 2010. "I knew there were a couple of people living in homeless camps, just three to four blocks away from downtown," he says. "A friend showed me where they were living. The first few months, I found four or five people living in the woods. And it just grew. All told, we've distributed over 2,000 pounds of bread."

In fact, he's now known as "Panera Paul" by the 45 people who receive the bread, baked goods, and other supplies he brings. "I don't think of them as 'the homeless.' That sounds cold to me," Paul notes. "I think of them as Anthony and Johnny and Tina—we're all on a first name basis. We've built up a lot of trust."

Bread's Just the Beginning

Menzel's coworker Paul Salisbury and several members of Lincoln Heights Evangelical Lutheran Church in Des Moines now join him. The volunteers also distribute food donated by a local restaurant-provisions company and by a local high school. When Paul Salisbury saw that many of the homeless had cats (and even a dog), a friend who owns a pet store donated food that he trekked in. Flashlights, boots, long underwear, rope, tarps, mittens, and even saws (for cutting firewood) have also been shared. "We even got several 50-pound bags of chicken feed, donated by a woman who found out one of the homeless people was raising chickens," Paul Menzel says. "As a result, the chicken started laying eggs—so this person could have nutritious eggs for breakfast."

The tent camps persist, winter and summer. "Some people are living there because the shelters in town are full. Others don't like the shelter and prefer to be on their own," Paul Menzel says. "Some people have been there for years; others aren't there the next time you go back." While a local medical school sends in teams to care for the tent dwellers' physical health, Panera Paul and his group focus on other needs. "We tell them God loves them and that we keep them in our prayers," he says. "We're reaching people one-on-one, striking up conversations, and building friendships."