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Why this AmeriCorps volunteer is living off Olive Garden for 7 weeks

It's not for love of breadsticks. 


Beth Elderkin


Posted on Sep 26, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 12:43 pm CDT

Matt Pershe first heard about the $100 Olive Garden Never Ending Pasta Pass in an email thread. The subject line? “Get fat at Olive Garden.”

That’s been the general response to the Olive Garden PR stunt: Get stuffed with pasta for seven weeks, suffer years of bad health

If you’re looking for ways to hate yourself for 7 weeks, it turns out the Olive Garden is offering a $100, 7 week, “Never Ending Pasta Pass”

— Yoni Freedhoff, M.D. (@YoniFreedhoff) September 8, 2014

But that didn’t stop more than 500,000 people from trying to grab one of the 1,000 passes on Sept. 8. The passes, which sold out in less than an hour, get you unlimited pasta, salad and breadsticks that can’t be shared with anyone. When Pershe was debating whether to try for one of those coveted passes, it wasn’t because he wanted to “gain 30 pounds” trying everything on the menu at least twice per day to get his money’s worth.

Rather, it was about everyday survival. 

“I am trying to approach this rationally, which is kind of scary,” Pershe said. “I’m not making much money at all. I’m doing this strictly for financial terms.” 

Pershe works with veterans as part of the AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA, program. He receives a small stipend that’s based on the poverty level in Philadelphia, where he’s serving for a year. Right now, the federal poverty level is about $11,700 per year, or less than $250 per week. 

Pershe told the Daily Dot the stipend helps AmeriCorps volunteers understand what it’s like for people living in poverty, but sometimes it means tough sacrifices. That’s why he jumped at the chance to get the Olive Garden Pasta Pass. 

“If I thought I could go for seven weeks cooking for myself and buying groceries for $100, I would,” Pershe said. “I just thought maybe $100 would go further by having … my lunches and dinners provided for me without having to buy the raw ingredients.” 

The seven-week eating spree started on Sept. 22, and Pershe took to Tumblr to chronicle his journey on “The Never Ending Pasta Blog.” There he jokingly writes about what it’s like to be one of the few to get a Pasta Pass, including how Olive Garden now follows him on Twitter. 

But, his Tumblr also discusses the more serious topics related to hunger in the United States. Specifically, how Americans living at or below the poverty line often have to sacrifice health for affordability when it comes to food. 

According to the Food Research and Action Center, people in low-income areas have better access to fast food and processed meals than fresh fruits and vegetables, which can contribute to obesity, diabetes and other health problems. Some medical professionals have argued that some restaurant chains like Olive Garden can be just as unhealthy.

“While some people may be really excited about what the next seven weeks will bring them at Olive Garden, I’m entering with a lot of trepidation and concern that this may be a terrible move for my health, taste buds and dignity,” Pershe wrote on his blog. “But, as has been observed in America, income influences dietary choices. I suppose I am no exception.”

According to Time magazine, eating two meals per day at Olive Garden for the entire seven weeks could equal around 100,000 calories, or 28 pounds. Pershe said he’s only getting enough Olive Garden meals to keep himself full, but not waste food. That means getting a salad and pasta, but perhaps only eating half of the pasta and saving the leftovers for lunch and dinner the next day. While he knows that won’t mean he’ll get $1,500 worth of Olive Garden pasta, he’s still getting what counts. 

“The first meal I bought was Monday night, and it lasted me three meals, including dinner last night,” Pershe said. “I’m getting the maximum value of the pass, because I’m having as many meals as I can from Olive Garden, but I’m not exploiting the pass.” 

Pershe said he’s also taken up a new exercise routine to offset the increased calorie count from eating more pasta. His goal is to either come out of the seven weeks at the same fitness level he started, or perhaps even a little healthier. 

But more so, he said he wants his blog to give people a taste of what it’s like to live at or near the poverty line. He doesn’t want to waste tons of food in order to take advantage of an unlimited Pasta Pass, but rather wants readers to understand what it’s like for people who don’t have a lot of options. He’s also working on getting some ads set up on his blog that would donate to area food banks, and is encouraging others to donate food or money to their own local food banks.

“It’s a good opportunity to talk about AmeriCorps, and be aware of people who don’t have as much,” Pershe said. 

Photo by Luca Nebuloni/Flickr (CC by 2.0)

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*First Published: Sep 26, 2014, 10:00 am CDT