Here’s a wonderful way to support people in need: the Panera restaurant chain is opening a “pay as you go” café in downtown Boston on Jan. 23, 2013, that allows for people who may not be able to afford a meal at a regular Panera to simply pay what they can.

The Panera Cares Community Café will open at 6:30 a.m. at 3 Center Plaza, across from Government Center in Boston. It’s the fifth such Panera restaurant in the nation right now, and the first to be opened on the East Coast. Panera founder and co-CEO Ron Shaich, who lives in Brookline, started this initiative three years ago in an effort to combat food insecurity in the United States.

The café will serve the same food as regular Panera restaurants and will have the same look and styling, but customers will see no cash registers when they visit. Instead, Panera will offer suggested prices for particular items. Customers who can afford it and want to help the café help others can leave $10 for an $8 sandwich, for example, while someone else with limited income could leave, say, $2 for the same sandwich.

The restaurant will also provide food vouchers for those who want to work behind the scenes for their meal, such as helping to clean the kitchen or wash dishes.

Check out this innovative restaurant the next time you’re in the Government Center area.

Deirdre Wilson is senior editor of the Boston Parents Paper.