Friday, September 20, 2013

I know Ron Shaich's heart is in the right place, but...

I'm afraid I'm going to have to take a couple of shots at this:
Panera Bread CEO Ron Shaich is spending a week trying to feed himself on $4.50 a day.
Shaich took the challenge to find out what it's like to live on food stamps. He's blogging about the experience on LinkedIn.

The average person on food stamps receives $4.50 per day in assistance, according to The New York Times.
When Shaich went shopping with his weekly budget of $31, he was surprised that he couldn't afford coffee, fruit, yogurt, or milk.

Shaich ended up settling on a daily breakfast of cereal without milk, a lunch of lentils and chickpeas, and a pasta dinner. He bought carrots to snack on in between meals. 
Instead of the intended message that being poor is hard, the takeaway is that rich people aren't very good with money. For starters, a competent shopper with a reasonable range of stores should be able to put together the meals and snacks described here for $3.00, maybe $3.50, certainly leaving enough in the budget for some milk for you cereal and a cup of coffee.

Wondering how he got his numbers I ducked into a Ralph's and checked some prices. (For those of you unfamiliar with the chain, Ralph's is the SoCal division of Krogers, not high end but generally more expensive than Wal-Mart which is generally more expensive than Food-4-Less which is generally more expensive that the 99 cents only stores.) The first thing I noticed was that he appears to have bought considerably more than a week's worth of food in some of his categories. When I looked at comparable boxes of cereal and pasta and bags of beans, I saw servings estimates totaling considerably more than seven. For instance, it appears that he bought 13 servings of lentils and 26 servings of chickpeas. Admittedly, suggested serving sizes can be somewhat unrealistic, but still...

More troubling than the shopping, though, is the meal planning. Shaich seems to know nothing about eating on the cheap. Consider the following from his blog:
I had already understood that coffee, pistachios and granola, staples in my normal diet, would easily blow the weekly budget. ... When I could afford something like cereal, it was of the “off-brand” variety, and won’t require a spoon, as I ended up leaving the milk at the register.
The parts about coffee and milk are particularly strange. House brand coffee costs about a nickel a serving and even many of the nicer brands will come in under ten or fifteen cents. For a quarter you can really go to town. The milk I checked was $1.79 for a half gallon. That's less than a quarter a serving (if you buy a gallon, it's less than twenty cents a serving).  Shaich describes doing without these things as a real hardship but doesn't seem to realize that they're in his budget.

This same lack of knowledge is probably one of the reasons why the menus presented here are so bad -- unappealing, nutritionally uneven, unsatisfying, and completely lacking variety (why eat the same thing every day?). With exception of dried beans and to a degree pasta (prepared foods are always borderline), all of the staples of budget cooking are missing. No potatoes, rice, oatmeal, chicken, eggs or my oft-neglected favorite, popcorn. Alton Brown once pointed out that the use of popcorn as a cold breakfast cereal predates corn flakes. That piece of information alone could have knocked a couple of dollars off of  Shaich's weekly budget.

Shaich's shopping list is filled with questionable to disastrous choices. An example of the latter would be spending more than ten percent of his weekly budget ($3.50) on cheese, a food which, though tasty, is not particularly filling or protein rich. To put this in context, Ralph's was selling name brand chicken for eighty-eight cents a pound and, though I didn't check the price of eggs there, I know that down the street at Trader Joe's a dozen extra large go for a buck eighty (and for two-fifty you can also get a bottle of the surprisingly good wine formerly known as "Two Buck Chuck"). Chicken and eggs are both remarkably versatile and can provide lots of protein for little money. Someone who runs a restaurant chain ought to know this.

I realize I'm being hard on the man but there's a bigger issue at stake. Shaich is the good twin to that jerk on TV insisting there's no hunger in America because you can buy a hamburger for a buck. Their intentions couldn't be more different but still both base their arguments on the same fallacies.

Hunger and food insecurity are not simply the result of a lack of cheap food. For an adult with a car, a decent kitchen, a good refrigerator, lots of time, good organizational skills and no special dietary needs, it is not only possible to eat a filling, nutritional diet on four dollars a day; it can even be fun for a while in much the same way that camping can be fun. (Try Googling "99 cents store gourmet.")

The fun goes away quickly, though, when conditions start deviating from that ideal. As with so many other aspects of poverty, eating on a microbudget is living on a butte -- every misstep can lead to a nasty fall. Shaich does hit on this concern: "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?" Living on this kind of budget means constantly being one unlucky break away from disaster. A crushed carton of eggs, a gallon of milk gone bad, an unreliable refrigerator, or just a mistake in planning at the wrong time can leave parents going without food so that the kids can eat.

Even if the worst doesn't happen, it's a life of constant stress, the kind of stress we're now learning can have particularly devastating effects on kids and their ability to succeed academically and professionally.

It should be noted that Ron Shaich has done a great deal to address the problem of hunger and food insecurity in this country and he deserves a world of credit, but in this latest effort, he's simply not helping.

1 comment:

  1. I met a very plucky single mom/college student on food stamps and she told me her strategies:

    1. The only meat she and her son ate was ground venison that her brother gives them. (Her bro keeps the steaks and gives her the ground leftover pieces.)
    2. She makes vats of spaghetti sauce w/ the meat and freezes it in serving sizes.
    3. Her retired dad took up vegetable gardening and canning. He shared his produce with her.
    4. Sunday dinner at her parents' house, taking home leftovers.
    5. Pack lunches at home
    6. Bulk bins!
    7. They ate lots of beans, rice and pasta.

    Food stamps are enough if you get a some help. This is why it's pointless to ask poor people who they don't move someplace else where they can earn higher pay. They would have to abandon social capital that, while it doesn't show up on a balance sheet, costs $ to replace.