Living On Food Stamps is a Challenge For This CEO, a Reality For Millions Of Americans

Ron Shaich, the founder, chairman, and CEO of Panera, decided to take on the SNAP Challenge and blog about it. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the federally-funded program more commonly known as "food stamps." It allocates an average $31.50 a week, or $4.50 a day, to people who need assistance purchasing food. Participants in the SNAP Challenge attempt to spend no more than $31.50 on food for a week. I do not doubt that Shaich's intentions are good, especially given his company's work on Panera Cares, but the SNAP challenge is a bad way to raise awareness about hunger and inequality in America. Rather than challenging people to live like those on food stamps, we need to start listening to those for whom food insecurity is a pressing issue and challenge of daily life.

The SNAP Challenge is centered on the assumption that the experience of wealthy individuals engaging in an artificial state of poverty trumps the stories of those who actually are actually poor and hungry. Shaich explains he underwent the challenge because "it is critical that I understand this problem in a deep and personal way." However, he will not gain a "deep and personal" understanding of the effects of hunger. Rather, he will gain a shallow, imperfect understanding of it.

The effects of long-term hunger and food insecurity are far and wide. Long-term food insecurity impacts a person's health, especially that of children. Participants in the SNAP Challenge cannot possibly experience the physical and psychological symptoms this condition entails. Furthermore, the short duration of the challenge prevents participants from experiencing the perpetual fear caused by not knowing whether one or one's family will have enough or any food to eat.

At the end of any given week, those who receive assistance from SNAP are not magically able to start spending more on food. Rather, they face another week of hunger, and then another. And then yet another. And then add on another. And then maybe two more.

Instead of taking the SNAP Challenge, wealthy people such as Shaich and members of Congress, should use their privilege and influence to share the stories of people on SNAP. Instead of treating the SNAP Challenge like a short experiment, people with power should recognize first and foremost that food insecurity is a constant reality for almost 48 million people in the United States. We need to stop believing that choosing to experience hunger for one week is in any way comparable to the systemic problems that create chronic hunger. Until we learn to trust the voices of the oppressed, we will never be able to dismantle oppression.