SNAP Challenge Schools Panera CEO on Food Insecurity

For the last week, Ron Shaich is putting his food budget where his mouth is—and learning a lot.

Panera CEO Takes the SNAP Challenge & Addresses Food Insecurity
Ron Shaich, Panera's executive chairman of the board, cofounder and CEO. (Photo: Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

Ron Shaich is carving out a niche as the Anti-Hunger CEO. His company, Panera Bread, started a successful nonprofit café that addresses food insecurity by allowing diners to pay what they can—even if that meant paying nothing at all. Last week, he was profiled by Forbes.com for his attention to hunger issues. And most recently, Shaich has been eating on just $4.50 per day—the average food benefit for recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Shaich is not the first to take the SNAP Challenge. Newark Mayor Cory Booker did it last fall as a response to a SNAP critic on Twitter, and earlier this summer Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) shared his SNAP Challenge experience on the House floor. The future of the program may be decided in the same arena; a vote that may come as early as this week could slash the nutrition benefit by $40 billion over the next decade.

Shaich, a millionare founder of a restaurant chain who likely never goes hungry for lack of money, has, over the last week, found himself immersed in the reality of tens of millions of Americans: food insecurity. He has shared his reflections each day via his LinkedIn page, documenting with words and photos what he’s learning from living on $31.50 for a week’s worth of food.

Last Wednesday, Shaich visited the NSA Supermarket in Dorchester, MA, which he’d heard features lower-priced food than other outlets. Low prices would be crucial, of course, given his financial constraints.

“I had already understood that coffee, pistachios and granola, staples in my normal diet, would easily blow the weekly budget,” Shaich reflected on his blog. “What I found distressing was that items like fruit and even yogurt are luxuries I’ll forego this week.”

Instead, he opted for ingredients that were filling—pastas, legumes, cereals—over foods that were more nutritionally balanced. Afternoons at work were sluggish as the pangs of hunger affected Shaich more than he realized, a sensation that a fast for the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur compounded.

Without the elation or even mild sense of adventure around the food I consumed today, the meals felt very utilitarian,” Shaich wrote on day two. “For the next week, beyond the hunger, I’m now bracing myself for another loss—the romance I normally associate with food.”

He says he was less productive at work, too, because he was malnourished, and identified with—even if only for a few days—those whose food insecurity brings on adverse physical and emotional side effects along with the constant worry of when and what their next meal will be.

“For millions of Americans struggling with food insecurity, this is life,” he wrote.

Shaich wraps up his seven-day challenge today. Check his blog to see how his final day went and what his big takeaways were from the experience.

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