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Panera CEO Takes The Food Stamps Challenge

Sep 26, 2013
Originally published on October 1, 2013 8:18 am

Ron Shaich, the CEO and founder of Panera Bread lived on a food and beverage budget of $4.50 per day for a week.

That figure is about the same amount someone receiving food assistance would get per day.

He joins Here & Now to share what he’s learned from the experience.


  • Ron Shaich, CEO and founder of Panera Bread, and president of Panera Bread Foundation.
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And at least six states are cutting back on food stamp programs, anticipating cuts from Congress will be approved. This month, House Republicans passed a bill that would cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. A Senate bill would cut a smaller amount, $4.5 billion. Still, it seems something will happen, although the president has vowed to veto major cuts.

We've talked about living without food stamps. Panera Bread CEO Ron Shaich wants to try living with them by taking the so-called SNAP challenge, $4.50 worth of food a day. He joins us now. And, Ron, you've worked on what's called Food and Security with your Panera Foundation. You started Panera Cares cafes. People there can pay what they can for their meals. But living on $4.50 of food a day, how did that go?

RON SHAICH: Robin, it was a fascinating experience. I started out to do this to personally gain some empathy, some experience to walk in the moccasins of those that had experienced it. Though, to be clear, you know, this is just a week for me and obvious - I don't want to trivialize people's experiences. The first thing to me is I really learned an extraordinary amount, mostly from the hundreds, if not thousands, of letters and emails I received from people that were, in some way or another, living an existence of Food and Security. And it was a powerful, powerful statement to me.

YOUNG: What did they say?

SHAICH: I guess that just it was, you know, people want to talk about food, and they want to talk about filling your belly. But this isn't about filling your belly. This is about your life. And that when you're - don't have enough food, you don't have a car, you don't a job, you don't have a way to take care of your kids, and you really get a sense of the nature of what it does to people and their inability to really be productive citizens, to add value to the society.

YOUNG: Yeah, the government says that 46 percent of SNAP client households choose between paying for heat and buying food.


YOUNG: So things like that. But what about - stay for a second just with the physical. $4.50 a day, what were you eating?

SHAICH: Yeah. You know, it's very interesting. I went out and went shopping right before I started the SNAP challenge, and I got to the counter, and I actually realized I'd overspent my allotted amount.

YOUNG: Yeah.

SHAICH: And I wanted to keep it under $25. I had to return the milk. I had to return certain eggs. You just got that feeling of embarrassment. And what I ended up eating was toasted oats, which are essentially generic Cheerios for breakfast. I made myself chickpeas and lentil stews for lunch. And mostly for dinner, I had pasta.

And when I went into this, Robin, I originally thought that I would try to eat nutritionally, and yet I found it went right out the window as soon as I put my shopping list together because the kinds of things that I wanted to eat were really not all that available to me on this kind of diet.

YOUNG: Did you feel - and it's only a week, but did you feel the impact of pasta - plain pasta for dinner? And did you...

SHAICH: Oh, I felt bloated at night. And here's what I really felt, I really experienced, and that is that I take food for granted. I stop and grab something for breakfast. We get something, a sandwich from Panera for lunch, you know, and we eat what we want for dinner. Here, food took on a dominant part of my life. I began to worry. Are we over-portioning? And would I have too little at the end of the week? Would I have any money left over?

YOUNG: You also got response to an essay on your experience at CNN, 1,400 comments, and many were not kind. People said things like food stamps are supposed to be a supplement. They are not supposed to be the sole source of money for food. And you were just using the food stamp amount for food. What do you say to that?

SHAICH: Well, I say, this whole thing is a simulation and so that this isn't meant to be what people's experience are. I'm also not having to pay a gas bill. I'm also not having to deal with the car. And to be frank with you, Robin, I was living with one person, myself. 80 percent of the people that are on SNAP are dealing with children or their disabled or their elderly. So my experience was simply an opportunity to have a window into what people experience. It isn't necessarily the experience itself.

YOUNG: Because you didn't have your family to do this with you. But, you know, I'm looking at - again, this is from the government...


YOUNG: ...from the SNAP program, but they say that the average SNAP household has a net monthly income of about $338. So when you list the other costs that a family has, 300 or so dollars over the course of a month, SNAP food stamps might be the only money for them.

SHAICH: Well, you read some of the letters that I receive, you talk to people that are experiencing this, and you realize that oftentimes they're living with less than that. I remember receiving a letter from a woman who said to me: Ron, how would you feel if your kids came home from school in the afternoon and there was nothing to give them for a snack and you didn't even have anything to give them for dinner?

This isn't an issue of a meal. It isn't even an issue of food. It's an issue of your life and how do you go forward as a productive citizen. And that's what you begin to see, and that's what you begin to hear about.

YOUNG: At the end of a week, you're, you know, you're getting grumpy, you told us, and not feeling well. And - so how do you then - as you say, how do you go out and do other things when you're not feeling well?

SHAICH: How do you - and we have to remember something. There are 48 million people in this country that are food insecure - one in six Americans, one in four children. Now, you know, one of the other criticisms of SNAP is that we get the story about the guy who's taking advantage of it.

YOUNG: The surfer in California who bought sushi, yeah.

SHAICH: Surfer dude. Yes, yes.

YOUNG: But people do point to this - for people who didn't hear, there was a surfer who was featured on Fox who used his SNAP money to buy sushi. The government says it's, you know, 80 percent of their clients are children and the elderly and families and that they have one percent - but they do admit that they have one percent of fraud. That's still over $700 million. What do you do about that?

SHAICH: I think of it this way, that there are people that game the system. On the other hand, most people aren't. There are tens of millions of people that are going hungry in this country. And I think we have to ask ourselves a question: What kind of society do we want?

YOUNG: Some people are suggesting tying food stamps to maybe work training programs in order to get them, some of the changes that were made to welfare. We'll pick that up another time. In the meantime, do you find yourself now after this week really, really sitting with the role and appreciating it more, or has it not changed you?

SHAICH: I think it's less my relationship with my own food and more my relationship with the issue. The reality is that we have to really decide whether we want to be part of solving this problem. It's a problem for government, it's a problem that requires our support of the NGOs like Feeding America, which is the umbrella organization for food banks in this country, and it requires innovative solutions from corporate America.

I mean we in corporate America, we are living off of this society. That's where we earn our profits, in these communities. And quite frankly, if we don't do something to support the community, we're ultimately going to be in a place where we're not able to sustain ourselves.

YOUNG: Yeah. Who's going to buy your food? Ron Shaich, again, of Panera Bread. He took the SNAP seven-day challenge, living on a food budget of $4.50 a day. Ron, thank you.

SHAICH: Thank you.

YOUNG: So have you taken the SNAP challenge to live on $4.50 a day? Or maybe that already is your budget, maybe food is already a daily challenge. Share your thoughts at You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.