Ron Shaich, founder and CEO of Panera Bread, recently participated in a novel program to better understand poverty. He agreed to live off $4.50 a day under the SNAP challenge. SNAP is the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps which helps millions of Americans living in poverty.
Shaich has seen thousands of people who struggle to feed themselves and their families. He has visited dozens of soup kitchens, food pantries, homeless shelters and food banks, and worked closely with nonprofit organizations. However in his own words: “I had no clue,” how difficult it was to survive like the people he’d witnessed. His SNAP Challenge taught him that merely observing someone else’s plight does not hold a candle to consciously altering your habits to better understand what it might be like to live someone else’s life. Under this challenge, he lived on a food and beverage budget of $4.50 a day, the average amount a recipient of food stamps gets in benefits.
He quickly saw the reality of being hungry. Shaich was forced to monitor how much food was left in the fridge and how many dollars were left in his wallet. He admits eating portions that were too big, and wasn’t sure what to do if his food ran out. This caused him a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty. He saw the trials of feeding himself on such a minimal amount. Eighty percent of households that have problems putting food on the table include the most vulnerable members of our society: children, the elderly and the disabled.
In this challenge, Shaich had to quickly change everything about his daily life. He had toasted oats for Breakfast and snacks. Lunch and dinner varied between chickpea, jalapeno and tomato soup, lentil casserole and pasta with tomato sauce and garlic. He only drank water and gave up coffee because it didn’t fit within the budget. Luxuries such as fresh fruit, vegetables and yogurt were too expensive.. Shaich said his new diet made him ” listless and grumpy”. The sad reality is one-in-six people, or roughly 48 million Americans, face this tragedy daily. Unlike the challenges of many Americans living off this diet, Shaich admits he wasn’t worrying about his car breaking down or not being able to pay for gas or having my electricity turned off or finding work or paying an unforeseen medical bill. For our fellow Americans, the reality is it is about deciding whether to eat or buy heart medicine or diabetic drugs. As Shaich says: ” It’s not about whether or not food is boring. It’s about living.”
However, the debate we often hear in Washington leads to thinking that the issue can be seen in black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. In this discussion, Shaich acknowledges critics of the program by saying that he has “no doubt” that there are some people who accept SNAP benefits when they either don’t need the assistance or may not use them appropriately. However, this can be seen with any large or complex system, such as SNAP.
In closing, Shaich recognizes that government is only part of the solution. He challenges his corporate allies to address this complex problem as well. At Panera, the company has tried to stretch itself to think of how to address hunger in new ways. Five nonprofit “Panera Cares” community cafes with no set prices and have donated hundreds of millions of dollars in products to food banks. Panera firmly believes that we must take care of the world that we live in or there won’t be any society left to support us. Hunger exists in every community, in every county, in every state. Shaich concludes: “this is our problem to solve, and it’s time to do so.” It is time for more Americans to recognize this problem and take a proactive approach in helping our fellow citizens. This can and must be a public-private partnership with government, private industry, the faith community, and all others working to help the least among us.