Panera CEO goes hungry on food stamps

The bakery chain's founder takes the SNAP Challenge and says lack of nourishment is making him grumpy and full of resentment.

By Aimee Picchi Sep 17, 2013 11:47AM

Ron Shaich, Panera Bread Co.'s CEO (© Tom Gannam/AP)Panera Bread (PNRA) founder and chief executive Ron Shaich has built a fortune selling pumpkin muffins and croissants to America's middle class. 

But this week, he's trying out the SNAP Challenge in an effort to find out how the other half lives by limiting grocery purchases to the average benefit amount shelled out by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It's not much. A typical food stamp recipient receives just $4.50 per day in food aid, according to Feeding America. 

On his LinkedIn (LNKD) blog, Shaich writes that the effort has led to some eye-opening revelations. "Over the last few days, my thoughts have been consumed by food. When is my next meal? How much food is left in my cabinet? Will it get me through the week? What should I spend my remaining few dollars on? What would I eat if I had no budget at all?" he writes.

On top of the anxiety about food is actual hunger. Shaich notes that he opted to spend his budget on cereal and pasta, which has left him "feeling bloated . . . yet not really full." 

Shaich, who earned $4.4 million in compensation last year, says the feelings of anxiety and hunger led to another sensation: "an underlying sense of resentment." For him, it was sparked by driving past restaurants he usually frequents. For a colleague trying the same challenge, resentment was triggered by "the price difference between branded and off-brand foods."

Still, while Shaich's effort to raise awareness of hunger in the U.S. is admirable, he may be missing the point of the food stamp program

While the average monthly benefit for one person is just $133.44 (or about $4.50 a day), the program is designed to supplement participants' own grocery money. Indeed, about 75% of SNAP beneficiaries also tap their own funds to stock their pantries.

At the same time, Shaich's efforts couldn't be more timely, given that Republicans are once again seeking to cut food stamp spending, this time by $4 billion a year. With one in seven Americans now relying on the program, it has come under criticism for being too lenient and open to fraud. 

Still, many Americans' wages have actually declined since the the start of the recession, so the program may be more needed than ever. And while some conservatives condemn food stamp recipients as loafers, Shaich has a different take on the issue. 

"Hunger is not synonymous with unemployed or homeless," he writes. "The inability to put food on the table is not equivalent to lazy."

Follow Aimee Picchi on Twitter at @aimeepicchi

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Sep 17, 2013 12:03PM
For $4.50/day, you can buy 2 cans of fruit ($1), 2 cans of vegetables ($1), a bag of rice ($1) and a package of cheap hot dogs ($1), and have a few pennies left over.  Beans aren't expensive.  Ramen isn't expensive.  Bread isn't expensive.  Eggs aren't expensive.  Bologna isn't expensive.  You can make a whole pan of corn bread for less than $1.

If you aren't happy eating on $4.50/day - GOOD, you shouldn't be happy or content, that's the whole friggin point - sustain yourself long enough to find a way to support yourself and buy your own food.  The idea is to get off the program as fast as possible, not milk it for as long as possible and then whine and moan about what you are getting for free.

Sep 17, 2013 3:09PM

Let me give an example on how the system really works. On Aug. 22, 1991, I walked in to a small grocery store that to my surprise was being robbed. As I entered, the gunman spun around and shot me in the chest and head. I lost my right lung and a small area of my left of my brain. To make this short and sweet - my wife at the time divorced me. She did not want to deal with medical issues. I had a good job, but now I was disabled. It is true that I receive $1,013 per month in SSDI, which I would need to collect until I am 97 years old to break even with the amount I put into the system. Because I actually worked, and put money into the system, I was granted a total of $31 in food assistance per month.


I was put in to my particular situation through no fault of my own. The person who shot me was out of prison before I was able to take care of myself. He served a total of 6 months.


The last I heard the person who shot me is receiving more government aid than I am, actually almost twice as much. The system is design to punish those who have worked and reward those who have not. Only in America.

Sep 17, 2013 12:39PM

Geez, where to start?


Firstly, he felt resentment whenever he passed restaurants. If I was unfortunate enough to need assistance, I would feel extremely grateful for it.


Secondly, my wife and I typically spend less than that on food and I feel far from deprived. We are just careful about what we buy and where we buy it from.


Finally, I should point out that you cannot buy breakfast at Panera for less than $4.50. No wonder the CEO has difficulty in the whole concept.

Sep 17, 2013 12:41PM

Food Stamps are one of the most abused and wasteful social program this country has ever developed. A family of four receives more money monthly then my family of five spends a month on food. The amount paid out each month should be cut by at least one third. Purchases by food stamps should be (if not already) restricted to the following: Fresh/frozen non prepared meats & fish, fresh/frozen non prepared vegetables, deli meats/cheeses, canned goods, breads, non sweetened dairy, and non sweetened juices. The following should always be banned, and processes need to be in place where not already, to restrict: Soda, bottled water, power and energy drinks, sweetened juices, coffee, tea, ice cream, candy, energy bars, any pre-prepared meals or sandwiches, snacks/junk food, or any food that is mail ordered or shipped anywhere. If these rules would be followed, and recipients would learn how to shop and properly eat, no one would be hungry and we the taxpayers would save billions.

            Tobacco and alcohol should be banned from purchase by welfare funds. No cash should be allowed to be pulled off of any assistance cards except at banks and should be limited to a very low percentage of funds.

Sep 17, 2013 12:14PM
Another idiot. You would think someone who owns a successful business would know better. It is far less expensive per person to feed 4 than it is to feed 1. If his business only baked for 1 person would he be able to charge what he charges? Of course not.
You can feed 4 people with $20.00, much easier than you can feed 1 person for $5.00. Also, SNAP is not meant to feed you three meals a day. It is not meant to take care of all your nutritional needs. This country has become spoiled.
Also, I know for a fact that in NJ they give more money to a family of 4 than my family of 5 spend a month for food.
Sep 17, 2013 12:45PM

The whole SNAP program is a joke. The retail grocery industry promotes SNAP because they are the direct beneficiaries of the program in sales dollars.

Go into any retail grocery store and see the SNAP  people picking up national brand junk food  soda chips, the best steak etc...3

I work and my wife works (have three kids - one in College which we help out) so we have to buy Sam  Choice products and the yellow stickered reduced meat at Walmart, while I watch some fat lazy SNAP recipients pick up the best meat and loads of junk.


Give me a break- go back and let the salvation army or locals hand out government surplus food.



Sep 17, 2013 2:09PM
First, a "typical" food stamp recipient getting $4.50 per day is based on averaging people who get partial benefits of maybe $20 per month (due to reporting income) and those who get full benefits of over $200 per month for the first individual (due to no income, low income/large family size, underreporting household income).  This article misrepresents the amount families actually receive who get maximum benefits, and who rely completely on the SNAP program.  Most states are closer to $200 per month for the first individual and slightly less for each additional family members, so more in the range of $6-7 per person per day.  The Southern states have some of the lowest benefits, due in part to the high percentage of population on SNAP.  Second, consider families with school aged children, often getting free breakfast and lunch at school, and that eliminates the cost of 10 of the typical 21 meals per week, which means there's nearly $3- 3.50 per meal per child.  That's a lot of macaroni and cheese, hotdogs, or hamburgers.  Third, many food stamp recipients relying completely on SNAP, especially those in larger cities, also go to various food pantries to get canned goods, bread, and lots of staples, or may go to a "soup" kitchen to get at least one meal.   At Thanksgiving and Christmas, families sign up for multiple free holiday food baskets.  This frees up SNAP to be used mainly for meats, frozen processed food, soda, chips, candy.  If children are going hungry in this country it is because the parents are being irresponsible with their SNAP benefits. The poor elderly who have too much pride to sign up for benefits are the main people I see who are going hungry, losing weight, and becoming pale and anemic due to malnutrition.
Sep 17, 2013 12:30PM
I'm curious where this CEO did his grocery shopping.  $4.50/day goes a lot farther at Wal-Mart than at Whole Foods.  Did he bother to clip any coupons or look for stuff on sale?  The article says he bought cereal and pasta - cereal is expensive for the amount you get, maybe too expensive for someone on food stamps.  Again, make better choices.

As has become standard in these articles, the top half is a useless example, and the bottom half is reserved for the talking points of the day.

Sep 17, 2013 1:53PM

I live on $100 a month easy. and I make 60k/year


50lb bag of rice $17 will last a whole year

25lb bag of beans $20 will last a whole year


buy some chicken on sale, frozen veg, eggs, chicken stock and other flavoring and some skim milk(besides water at work, I only drink milk, went cold turkey off diet dew)


It's so easy make a variety of crock pot chicken and rice dish, half feeds me EASILY, I freeze the rest and make another with different flavor(chicken rice salsa and cream cheese is my favorite)


a side bonus is you cook about only once a week only, I also chose to live near work so I can drive home everyday to eat.



Sep 17, 2013 12:06PM

What would these SNAP recipients do if the taxpayer wasn't there to feed, clothe, and house them? The dems just keep growing dependency to grow their base. If they were that hungry , I would think they would be motivated to make a few life changes.

Sep 17, 2013 1:57PM
Most people want to help those in need who can't get help anywhere else.  Likewise, most people don't want fraud or abuse in our welfare programs nor do they want to create incentives not to work, etc.  There are currently 126 Federal Welfare programs.  We spent more on welfare (748 Billion) than on our military (660 Billion) - and those were 2011 statistics.  Welfare is increasingly becoming a way of life.  Fraudulent Disability claims are skyrocketing and they pay out tons of money. 
Sep 17, 2013 1:50PM

That's funny because here in Florida the food stampers drive Cadillac's and custom low riders.


Sep 17, 2013 3:49PM
When I was a kid in the 70's govt assistance consisted of a 10lb block of cheese,a huge bucket of peanut butter and two boxes of powdered milk.Everything else you had to work for.Now you can live better doing absolutely nothing your whole life than working hard.
Sep 17, 2013 2:11PM
Again not all the turth the average food stamper the single mom also gets the follwoing, free medical for her and her money makers, free or reduced rent, free or reduced electric and gas, free rides to the doctors, free cell phone, free breakfast and lunch for her money makers(in fact the schools in NY stay open in the summer, (no not to teach just to feed) EIC for her little part time minium wage job, that in NY state along with DC is around $8,000 per year. So the food stamps are just icing on the gravey train single mom train. The rest of you back to work, and keep paying for the peeps who will not work.
Sep 17, 2013 3:29PM

Sunday night on the news, they interviewed a man outside a grocery store. He was commenting on how he needed to get some groceries before the Florida EBT/SNAP system went down for software upgrades. All I could do is stare at the enormous gold necklace he had on.... 

Sep 17, 2013 12:47PM

the govt will give me close to 140 bucks a month to help me buy food?  i'll take it.  thats 140 extra dollars i can use to buy alcohol and cigarettes or a big screen tv or the latest smartphone.


where do i sign up to get this SUPPLEMENT aimee?

Sep 17, 2013 12:42PM

if i pay 300 a month for food, that about 10 dollars a day.


if snap is going to give me 4.50 a day as a SUPPLEMENT, then i will be spending less than $6 a day.


i can save close to $150 a month with snap.  i'll take that challenge.  sign me up aimee

Sep 17, 2013 3:38PM
The problem is when you have the elderly, who need help and who have generally worked their entire life PAYING into the system, not receiving enough assistance to help them out. The amount of assistance given to the elderly and disabled pales in comparison to what the dregs of society who suck from the teet of government hand outs receive. My mother, who is 71 and worked for over 50 years receives $35 per month in food stamps. What kind of system is this? My brother, sister and I help her out what we can to help ends meet. But with the state of the economy what it still is, can only do so much. I work a second job at a grocery store and work in the meat department to make ends meet for my family. There I have encountered again what I call the dregs of society, proudly proclaiming they just found out they can purchase crab legs with their stamps, or ribeye and other high priced cuts of meat. One young girl who shops at this store claims she receives $350 per month per kid. She is unmarried with four kids so far. I know there have been multiple times I have sold her over $100 in steak in a single transaction, while she has had a cart full of ramen for her kids to make it through the month. Me, my wife and daughter make it on $45-$50 a week in groceries, and we are not starving. It is not the use of food stamps the anger me and people who think like me, it is the utter abuse of the system by the ones who only work at getting ahead is being able to pop out another welfare recipient (I know it is not the child's fault, but the majority will only learn and emulate their parents) or find another way to get some more money from the hard working American public. This government screws the workers , current and retired, so they can buy a lifetime of votes. This government does not care about the disabled, no matter which party. The dregs of society care not for them either or they would accept a drop in their cut so that the elderly and disabled would receive a larger cut so they can make it by easier. If possible I will work until the day I pass away so that my family will not have to take the minute handout that would be offered. Each time I see stories like this it ticks me off and if you work, have parents who are on assistance, or have a disabled relative who needs the help it should you too, no matter which party you align yourself with, conservative or liberal.
Sep 17, 2013 4:12PM
i used to repair homes that people on sec. 8 lived in. while i ran across a few people that needed help, this scenario was more common. pull in drive, make sure you don't scratch their escalade, walk into their 90 degree house in the winter ( nine times out of ten i would see a window open), try to get past the room full of furniture with a huge flat screen tv, do my repairs and get out of while at least half a dozen people came in and out. usually the kitchen was filled with fast food wrappers and prepackaged food. these people abused the system and it made me sick. help people that need it then get them off the system, i can't make enough to support them any more! 
Sep 17, 2013 4:55PM

As a fellow SNAP reciepient, I must disagree with some of the comments written. I recieve less than $50.00 a month in food stamps and I shop accordingly. I found that living on permanent disibility does not entitle me to any special priviledges, so when next you decided to comment on the use of services available to the needy be sure to remember that some of us are not taking advantage of the system. Thank you

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