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Everything is Free 

Radiohead made jaws drop last year when they announced that fans could pay whatever they wanted for the band's latest album, In Rainbows. A dollar. One hundred dollars. Nothing. Whatever. It was a shocking idea, but a number of other entrepreneurs -- from Paste and Good magazines to comedian Steve Hofstetter -- followed suit. Said Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood to Rolling Stone: "It's fun to make people stop for a few seconds and think about what music is worth."

That's what I'm thinking about as I stare at a tangle of dill and onion pasta salad in the corner of my plate at One World Spokane, a new nonprofit restaurant at 1804 E. Sprague Ave. (Visit oneworldspokane.com.)

It's one thing for one of the world's biggest, richest rock bands to let fans pick their own price for a digital download. But for the last six months, we've been hearing about the unprecedented costs of food and fuel, of transportation and business. The Inlander has published a host of stories about food bank shelves going bare and nonprofits refusing shipments of canned goods because they can't afford the cost of bringing it to Spokane.

And in about 20 minutes, I have to decide how much I want to pay for that pasta salad. Twenty-five cents? Twenty-five dollars? It's hard to decide.

One World Spokane only opened last week, and head chef Daniel Cantu -- who was imported from Salt Lake City to get the business on its feet -- isn't yet tired of giving the spiel. The scruffy 30-year-old with wild black hair and shocking blue eyes motions to a spread of dishes on the counter before him. "It's all organic. We're dedicated to eliminating hunger and reducing food waste. You're going to help us reduce food waste today by picking your portions -- choosing only as much as you need to fill you up," he says. "And then you're going to decide how much you want to pay for it."

Before him lie plates of apple slaw, zucchini in a yogurt sauce, an "everything" cookie, that dill pasta salad. In heated serving pans to the left are roasted potatoes, beef with beans. I can eat as much as I want. I can pay whatever I like. And at the end of the counter, wedged between cauldrons of vegetable soups, are a couple items that are completely complimentary: Today it's daal and couscous.

I start with a vegetable rice soup -- heavy with mushrooms and spiced with ginger -- and sit at a table in one of two windows that protrude onto the sidewalk, looking out at always bustling East Sprague, with its strange characters and constant traffic.

People can come in off the street, work for an hour, and they'll feed them and call it even. But this isn't a soup kitchen. Not in the conventional sense of the term. It's homey but chic. The long shotgun room has a high ceiling decked with black tile. The walls and mismatched tables and chairs give off sage green and a creamy brown. It smells terrific, but without music, it's peaceful and quiet.

Neighborhood folks come in a steady trickle, many of them unaware of the restaurant's unique catch. Local business owner Jim Brown and his friend shoot their eyebrows up in surprise when Cantu delivers his speech, then tuck into plates full of a little bit of everything. Culinary student Georgia Bullchild finds the restaurant's collection of bowls and plates in a humble wooden cupboard along one wall. "Wow. This place is different," she says.

They love it.

"I never eat like this," says Bullchild. "I always eat bad food, fast food."

"Super-tasty," says Brown. "It was good, but good for you."

In more ways than one, really. "I like promoting this kind of idealistic alternative approach to commerce," says Morton Alexander, a 63-year-old juvenile parole officer, who paid $10 for his bowl of soup and a plate with a few cold items. "I hope it works."

It has worked in Salt Lake City, where Denise Cerreta began One World Everybody Eats more than five years ago. Halfway into my second helping, Cerreta strolls in with Shin Kwan Park, a woman from San Francisco who is visiting One World Spokane in the hopes of bringing a similar program to the Bay Area.

Cerreta has been in Spokane for two months, helping locals Keith and Janice Raschko get One World off the ground. "I think they're doing great," she says. Cerreta adds that she's so enjoyed her two months in Spokane that she intends to move here in the spring. "Everyone in the food community is so supportive," she says. "I don't think you guys realize or appreciate how happening it is here."

So happening that I can pay whatever I want for my pasta salad and apple slaw, my tender beef on a bed of couscous. I make sure to clean my plate. On the way out, I pass the wooden pay box to let them know how much I value their food.

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