Panera Bread Co.’s CEO Tries to Eat on $4.50 a Day

St. Louis — For a few days in mid-September, the CEO of Panera Bread Co. was feeling bloated, cranky, and weak.

It’s not become of some sudden drop in sales or other unfortunate turn of events for the Sunset Hills, Mo.-based company. Rather, Ron Shaich has been loading up on too many carbs and yet still feeling hungry because he’s been eating on $4.50 a day as part of the SNAP Challenge — an initiative in which a number of Congressmen have also participated.

That dollar amount, Shaich notes, is the equivalent of the average daily benefit per person for people on food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. (A piece in the Washington Post noted though that many SNAP recipients spend their own money on food, too, so the $4.50 figure can be misleading.)

He has been blogging about his experience on LinkedIn.

When he went to the grocery store — a task, he notes, that is not a part of normal routine — he realized he couldn’t afford to fill his cart with fruits and coffee and other staples of his diet. So instead he got cereal (toasted oats) for breakfast, chickpeas and lentils for lunch, pasta for dinner, and carrots for a snack.

The carb-heavy diet seemed like a good idea at first. But he has already begun to regret it.

“Each night, when I go to bed, I’m engulfed by a sick feeling that comes from eating too many carbs,” he wrote in his blog post on Monday. “The cereal and pasta that have made up the bulk of my diet (mixed with the water that I’m consuming to try to mask the hunger) leave me feeling bloated ... yet not really full. It doesn’t make going to bed much fun.

“I have also been uncharacteristically cranky. 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.”

Indeed, he said he’s become consumed with thoughts of food — feeling tormented every time someone bites into an apple or opens a can of peanuts. He said he’s also begun to feel resentment when he drives by restaurants he normally frequents.

When he started the experiment, Shaich emphasized that he knows his week-long experience won’t give him an “authentic representation of food insecurity” in the U.S. But he said he goal was just to help bring awareness to the issue that affects millions of Americans and to spark deeper conversations about it and possible solutions. (By the way, this also happens to be Hunger Action Month, an awareness campaign by Feeding America, which is a nonprofit partner of Panera.)

Of course, food insecurity is an issue that Shaich has been deeply involved with for years. A few years ago, he launched the first pay-what-you-want nonprofit cafe under the Panera Cares name in Clayton, Mo. Since then, the concept has expanded to four other bakery-cafes around the country.

He also experimented earlier this year with a pay-what-you-want turkey chili menu item that was introduced at St. Louis Bread Co. cafes. But he later pulled the plug on the program, saying it wasn’t having the impact and scope he had hoped and he wanted to tweak the concept into a limited time menu item in the future.