Doesn’t it suck when your actual life is someone else’s “challenge”?
Panera’s CEO, Ron Shaich, is attempting to live off food stamps in order to exercise empathy for poor people (apparently). You can find his full diary here, titled “Challenging Myself to Experience Hunger,” (AKA “Dear Diary, being poor is hard“) but after only the first day, some things definitely stood out to me:
“Truth be told, I was nervous. I don’t generally shop for groceries, so that in and of itself was out of my normal routine.”
Wait…he doesn’t shop for groceries??? Who are you, Ron Shaich? $31.50 says he caves after his first irregular poop. That’s a whole week’s worth of groceries, according to Shaich’s budget.
“We’re all familiar with the conventional wisdom that links fiscal constraints to unhealthy food choices. My goal with this challenge wasn’t to relive Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me documentary with a week of ‘dollar menu’ choices.”
Except he is kind of reliving Morgan Spurlock’s short-lived TV show, 30 Days, whose pilot focused on Spurlock attempting to survive on minimum wage for a month. I have a lot of problems with Spurlock, and the “Minimum Wage” episode in particular (which is the only episode of that show I ever watched), but one bit of credit I can give him is that at least he stuck it out for a full 30 days. Shaich’s “experiment” is going on for only 7, which means he’s almost finished. He’s doing his own Hunger Games by his own rules, and he’s playing on the easiest difficulty. Meanwhile where’s the experiment where we take a hungry person and give them Shaich’s salary? Oh, right. That experiment is conducted with Eddie Murphy in Trading Places, one of my favorite Christmas movies of all time.
Shaich is an interesting guy, and also very informed on the state of hunger in America. He’s aware that hunger doesn’t affect only the people we think it affects, and that the people who suffer from it on a day-to-day basis are as diverse as you and me (in another post he talks about a man who came in wearing a suit, but asked to share a gratis meal due to his circumstances). But this exercise makes me uncomfortable. One of the best ways to exercise empathy is NOT to make someone else’s life an experiment and a spectacle. It’s actually to sit down and listen, and reach out to them. Shaich mentions in his post that he doesn’t intend to “trivialize anyone else’s experience.” But the problem with awareness campaigns like this is that’s exactly what they do. He goes on to admit that his stunt is not to necessarily reach out to people struggling to make ends meet, but to reach out to CEOs and to “inspire himself.”
Also, I know the business community doesn’t want to hear this, but one of the solutions absolutely needs to be a discussion on the dissemination of profits (I won’t spoil it for you, but when you see the end of Trading Places, you’ll understand). Panera is considered to be in the “Top 20 Hourly Wages In Retail” according to a laughably depressing article by Business Insider. You might think that’s good news until you realize that Panera basically only pays pennies above minimum wage. It’s pretty insane when billion dollar corporations pay their workers less than $1200 a month in take-home and expect them to be able to use it for shelter, food, transportation, utilities, clothing, medical/dental AND a savings plan that allows for life emergencies. It’s not realistic or sustainable, but nobody in Shaich’s position wants to make sacrifices that aren’t either A) charitable, B) photo-ops, C) week-long publicity stunts, or D) all of the above.
It’s obnoxious that millions of people are living this life today, and their perspectives are basically invisible until a rich and powerful CEO of a large chain restaurant tries to do it as a publicity stunt. Ron Shaich is already a millionaire. Seven days is the perfect amount of time for an experiment like this to go viral, and the more people admire Shaich for what he’s doing, the more it helps his business. After this week is over (officially on Thursday), he can go back to living the good life, and this week will become a story he can save for his grandkids when he tells them about how their old gramps pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become the man he is today, but never forgot where he came from or whatever.
It’s entirely possible to create a campaign to combat wage inequalities and failed assistance to those in need. We can help people without hurting people. But everyone is willing to cut this guy some slack because of his clout. We do this all the time, and the rich do it to themselves too. Wealthier people, on the whole, donate a smaller percentage than those with lower incomes, but we give them a pass because in one fell swoop, a millionaire can donate more than what I make in an entire year. But this is not a money issue. It’s a behavior issue, and an empathy issue, and Shaich is doing it wrong.