Goop Versus SNAP: Do Celebrity Food-Stamp Stunts Help?

Gwyneth Paltrow is the latest wealthy star to try living on a low-income food budget.

Gwyneth Paltrow took the SNAP challenge for four days. The above photo showcases the food she purchased for $24.40. (Photo: Goop)

Apr 16, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Let them eat limes, Gwyneth Paltrow’s tweet of a $29 grocery-store shopping haul seemed to say. So. Many. Limes.

The Internet freaked out, as the Internet is wont to do, when pal Mario Batali challenged Paltrow on behalf of The Food Bank for New York City to eat on a budget equivalent to a week of SNAP benefits. Last Thursday’s Instagram-ready snapshot of her groceries incited furor and the same “tone-deaf” charges that tend to dog the actor. Batali participated in the challenge in 2012, feeding his family pork shoulder, lentil chili, and “more peanut butter and jelly than they’ve had in the last 10 years,” as he told The Associated Press, without nearly as much fanfare or backlash.

But for Paltrow, the firestorm has continued for a week—an eternity in Internet time. Abby Williams at The Washington Post called her food-stamp challenge “the most Gwyneth thing ever.” Time’s Darlena Cunha leveled the charge of “poverty tourism” at the actor.

“The thing about poverty is that people do not choose it,” she wrote. “There is nothing about poverty that one week can teach anyone with a safety net in place. It’s a game. ‘Let’s see how far we get on $29 before we have to use our real money!’ ”

That’s exactly what happened. Four days after the challenge began, Paltrow was seen leaving a Los Angeles restaurant at lunchtime, and on Wednesday, she attended an $80 prix fixe dinner. On Thursday, she came clean on Goop, writing, “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).”

But is “winning” a SNAP challenge what Paltrow and others really hope to accomplish? If she spent $100 on dinner, does it matter?

“Overall, SNAP challenges are a way to help educate the public about what it means to live on such a limited budget,” said Jennifer Adach at the Food Research and Action Center. “We’ve seen a lot of members of Congress participate, and they often find that they’re struggling to make choices in the grocery store. It’s a way to shed a light on the struggles people are facing to live on such a limited income and face those challenges.”

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., participated in a similar "Live the Wage" campaign, wherein legislators attempted to subsist on a minimum-wage income for a week. “When I signed up to take part in the Live the Wage challenge, I thought I understood the sort of hard decisions many American families face when making ends meet,” he said. “But, in truth, no one who hasn’t tried to get by on such a small amount of money can truly understand the challenges minimum-wage earners face.”

“When your choice of bread or pasta sauce brand can determine whether you have enough money to make it to the next payday,” he added, “financial security is an unachievable dream.”

But critics of these challenges call this discovery hardly surprising, and say whatever revelations an otherwise well-off person might experience fall far short of creating real change. “Proving that those who are wealthy, middle class, or famous can live on $4 per day may increase empathy, but it will do little to actually help those who need the program most,” Time posited after Sen. Cory Booker, then-mayor of Newark, completed his SNAP challenge in 2012. “In the meantime, there is very little public conversation—or legislation—about actually raising the dollar amount for SNAP recipients.”

In March, House Republicans unveiled a budget that called for cutting $1 trillion from mandatory spending, outside of health and retirement programs, over the next 10 years. SNAP is the largest program in that segment of the budget. While the House didn’t specify how such reductions would be achieved, it’s likely that benefits would be cut and eligibility rules changed to take some people off food stamps altogether. It’s a proposal that goes farther than the food-stamp cuts contained in the farm bill that Congress approved last year. About 46 million Americans receive SNAP benefits, and the New York City Food Bank provides 63 million free meals each year to New Yorkers in need.

Which brings us back to Paltrow. Did she really “fail” the challenge? After all, Batali challenged Deborah Harry and Sting too. All they did was retweet.

“Dozens of publications, and tens of thousands of readers, have had the existence of SNAP broadcast directly into their lives,” cool-kid magazine Nylon wrote. “Were you thinking about it before she tweeted her groceries? I certainly wasn’t.”