How Do We Nourish 9 Billion People?

In a world where 2 billion people are undernourished, 1.4 billion are overweight or obese, and 800 million are hungry, what is the blueprint for strengthening access to nutritious foods and sustainable agriculture? What food and nutrition priorities should the international community set as the UN’s Millennium Development Goals goals expire?

Those were among the questions that I and four other panelists grappled with recently at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival.  As the sole CEO in the group, this is the question that I cared about most: what role should the private sector take on in addressing these challenges?

My short answer to that question is that no company, including Panera, has done enough.

Sure, Panera has a philanthropic arm, through which we give $100 million in unsold baked goods and cash every year to food pantries and soup kitchens throughout the country. But at times, those efforts have felt inauthentic. Day-old product goes out the door, but we don’t really know where it ends up. Although we’re a food retailer, we’ve lacked a direct connection with the people in need who receive our food.

So four years ago we rolled out Panera Cares, community cafés where people eat good tasting, nutritious food and pay whatever they can afford. And last year I briefly experienced hunger firsthand, when I spent a week taking the SNAP Challenge.

However, in launching the community cafés and in understanding hunger in a small but personal way, I’ve concluded that we must go further. A vital step is to continue to use our scale to build markets for nutritious foods that are grown sustainably.

Ten years ago, we decided to serve chicken raised without antibiotics, despite a woefully inadequate supply. In doing so, we gave farmers a big incentive to raise antibiotic-free chicken and thereby created a market where none previously existed. Today, we’re doing the same thing with antibiotic-free turkey and ham.

As a market develops, the costs come down and more people can access better, more nutritious foods. It’s a win-win for farmers, suppliers, food retailers and most of all, consumers.

It will be interesting to see the impact of Wal-Mart’s decision to stock organic produce. This wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago. The costs were prohibitive and the supply didn’t exist. But it takes someone to make that first leap, as we did with chicken. When they do, everyone benefits.

Another way that the private sector can do more: provide greater transparency around food ingredients. As part of our effort to bring some sunlight to this challenge, Panera is using ingredients that you can actually pronounce.

We’ve removed all added MSG and other artificial trans fats from our bakery-café food menu and we are actively working with our suppliers to remove all artificial additives by the end of 2016. This speaks to a belief that we owe it to our customers to tell them what’s in our food and to then push harder to ensure that we’re part of the solution.

Through these and other initiatives, we also aim to inspire or if necessary provoke other companies to contribute to society in a way that goes beyond philanthropy, and instead harnesses those nonrenewable resources—their time and know-how—to directly address the world’s inequities.

It’s my hope that other chief executives in our industry will conclude that we have a fiduciary duty to address the problem of food insecurity and our broken food system. In Panera’s case, we serve 8 million people each week and we have 80,000 associates who count on us. We have an obligation to lean into the problems and issues as we see them and to use our scale and power to take on the toughest challenges.

It’s the right thing to do for our self-respect.

And it’s the right thing to do for our business.

Ron Shaich
About the author: 

Ron Shaich is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Panera Bread.  Panera has nearly 1,900 locations across the United States and Canada. Ron was awarded the MUFSO Pioneer Award as one of the most significant contributors to the history of the food service industry. He also won the IFMA Gold Plate Award as the outstanding leader in the industry.  Mr. Shaich serves as the President of the Panera Bread Foundation, and on the Board of Directors of the Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation.  Follow him on Twitter.