Gwyneth Paltrow vs SNAP Challenge

Gwyneth Paltrow TweetAmerica knows too much about Gwyneth Paltrow. The actress has divulged that she no longer maintains her pubic hair, recommends vaginal steaming for everyone who has one, suggests “conscious uncoupling” (because “divorce” is such an ugly word), and, through her online lifestyle magazine Goop, a $6,500 pink trench coat. Goop ostensibly promotes “food, shopping, and mindfulness,” and for someone who makes an estimated $19 million annually, it’s a matter of scale. Through her oversharing, she says and does a lot that incurs public wrath. 

Last week she did it again, perhaps unwittingly. Tapped by Chef Mario Batali, who serves on the board of directors for the Food Bank of New York City, to participate in the #FoodBankNYCChallenge, she snapped a photo of what $29 of her groceries would look like and tweeted it with the comment “This is what $29 gets you at the grocery store — what families on [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] have to live on for a week.”  

That’s not exactly accurate. Families get $29 per person per week, which is about $4.50 each day for each family member.  Also, the #FoodBankNYCChallenge requires that the challenge participants live on $29 worth of groceries for the week, not just demonstrate a working knowledge of how many groceries that would purchase. Paltrow might not have been aware of how condescending her list would seem to someone struggling to feed a family without the benefit of regular vaginal steaming in the aftermath of a conscious uncoupling. 

Her show of sympathy and concern got lost between the kale and organic black beans as people clamored to know how she would stay alive on a 1,000 calorie per day diet.

Christian Pitt, an uncoupled mother of a teenager who knows a thing or two about living on a tight budget, said, “When challenged to feed herself for $29 a week, Gwyneth Paltrow went for limes… Limes, folks…” Limes certainly seem like a wild extravagance for someone who is barely squeezing by. 

SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is under attack by the Republican majority in Congress. To qualify, a participant must be at or below 130 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. For one person, that’s $15,301 per year; for a family of four it’s $31,525. 

There are about 46.5 million people who receive SNAP benefits in the United States, and two-thirds of the children receiving those benefits live in the households of single moms; most are working households. SNAP benefits are supposed to be “supplemental” and augment a household’s food budget, but in many cases that is all the money they have for food. 

So where does this lime-shaming come from? Paltrow’s groceries included: a dozen eggs, a head of romaine lettuce, a brown onion, a bunch of green onions, an avocado, a single ear of corn, kale, one tomato, seven limes, cilantro, a package of tortillas, frozen peas, a bag of rice, a bag of black beans, one jalapeño and a sweet potato. 

Paltrow likes to keep carbohydrates to a minimum, and her food focus is towards fresh and organic. Analysts have demonstrated that her bag of groceries yields an unsustainable 1,000 calories per day and that few of her choices are filling. There isn’t much protein. She chose limes over potatoes. Kale over oatmeal. Cilantro over chicken. What was she thinking? How could somebody be so out of touch?

As it turns out, Paltrow made it four days – sort of. There’s a rumor that she went out to dinner with her boyfriend on the second night. By the strictest rules of the challenge, this is cheating. But in the actual world of getting by, there’s nothing wrong with allowing someone to take you out for a meal. 

Paltrow conceded defeat on her Goop blog. “As I suspected, we only made it through about four days, when I personally broke and had some chicken and fresh vegetables (and in full transparency, half a bag of black licorice),” she wrote. “My perspective has been forever altered by how difficult it was to eat wholesome, nutritious food on that budget, even for just a few days — a challenge that 47 million Americans face every day, week and year.”

“My perspective has been forever altered by how difficult it was to eat wholesome, nutritious food on that budget, even for just a few days — a challenge that 47 million Americans face every day, week and year.”

Awareness is critical to the success of this or any other campaign, and if Paltrow’s food choices seem out of touch with sustainable poverty, then Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin’s (R) are doubly so. Seemingly under the impression that his state’s poor are living comfortably by selling crack and using their benefits for periodic surf and turf splurges, he introduced a bill, HB 813, in February that would bar SNAP recipients from buying steak or seafood. Outrage was immediate and the bill has gone nowhere.

Still, about 1 million SNAP recipients are likely to lose their benefits this year and many states are putting greater restrictions on beneficiaries, including mandated drug testing. This might seem logical — why should taxpayers finance people who spend their food money on drugs? But in fact, this social experiment has failed every single time it has been implemented, and it only serves to further punish the children of addicted mothers. But it isn’t just about the recipients — farmers and grocers benefit from the USDA program as well.

Food Stamp challenges have been around for years, and they are often criticized for being stunts that allow celebrities to benefit from the publicity of “feeling the pain” without actually sharing it. Paltrow can stick to her groceries, or she can go to a restaurant. If it’s cold, she can wear a $6,500 pink trench coat. She doesn’t need to worry about her kids being hungry, finding nutritious vegetables in a food desert or whether she’ll lose her benefits if she takes a second (or third) job.  People who live at or below 130 percent of the Federal Poverty Level worry about things like that all the time. 

The celebrities who go in for SNAP challenges are the least likely to need sensitivity training; they are already converts to the cause. The politicians who want to cut SNAP benefits — the Rick Brattins and the Paul Ryans — never will. No one does the ALS ice bucket challenge when it’s snowing, and no one lives on $29 worth of food for the week unless they absolutely have to.

Let’s just get off Paltrow’s case this one time. Unlike the steaming, the shaving, the uncoupling and the expensive clothing in neutral colors, this is an issue that affects far more people than Gwynnie and her staff. 

This is an important dialogue that Americans ought to be having right now, and if she’s brought attention to it, even in an awkward, self-serving, out-of-touch way, then at least the door is open for some meaningful discussion.

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