Panera CEO Takes Food Stamp Challenge, Eats On Less Than $5 A Day

Panera Bread is at the higher-end of fast options, and, what you sacrifice in pennies compared to McDonald’s dollar menu, you gain back in fancier frills like ciabatta bread and chipotle mayo.

Sure, $5 won’t go far at Panera Bread, but most people think the splurge is worth it. However, this week the chain’s CEO can’t even afford to eat at his own shops.

Okay, technically he can — but not if he plays by the rules of the food stamp challenge, or SNAP challenge. Like Cory Booker before him and some other prominent hunger advocates, Panera CEO Ron Shaich is moved by the plight of many Americans who cannot afford basic supplies of food for day to day living.

Shaich used his LinkedIn page to blog about the SNAP challenge and how it’s affecting him, musing in his first food stamps post that “16 million children go to bed hungry” in America each day.

Shaich pledged to live on just $31.50 a week, more than most families will spend in a single Panera trip. That works out to an average of $4.50 a day, and even the start of the project, shopping, was a frightening experience for the CEO.

He explains:

“What I found distressing was that items like fruit and even yogurt are luxuries I’ll forego this week. When I could afford something like cereal, it was of the ‘off-brand’ variety, and won’t require a spoon, as I ended up leaving the milk at the register.”

He observed that while the foods he managed to get were “filling,” healthy options like yogurt, fruit and veggies were way too expensive on the food stamp allotment.

By day two, Shaich said the constant worry of looming hunger — also known as food insecurity — caused a lot of distress for him. He admitted:

“The distinctive ripping sound of someone biting into a fresh apple; the maracas-like percussion produced by a canister of Planters’ peanuts; even the change in a person’s voice that occurs when they speak with a lifesaver in their mouth – I was hyper aware whenever those around me consumed. At about 6:25 p.m., I even broke down and paid 40 cents to a colleague for a small handful of peanuts, and soon after, handed over a dime to another for an Atomic Fireball.”

The next day, the Panera CEO says the stress worsened:

“A few nights ago, my wife, Nancy, and I had a tense back and forth after I snapped at her for over-portioning my spaghetti. I felt so much anxiety about the possibility of running out of pasta that I completely overlooked my wife’s good intentions in helping to prepare my dinner. I have to imagine that this is a common source of conflict in households marked by food insecurity.”

While he’s still mid-challenge, Shaich has also reported on his blog that 15 percent of Americans are food insecure.

Do you think the Panera CEO’s SNAP challenge experience will bring the issue of food insecurity to the fore, or do people find the problems of others less compelling unless they see it firsthand?