What went wrong with Gwyneth Paltrow’s SNAP challenge?
The SNAP challenge — as in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a.k.a., food stamps — asks participants to get by on a food budget of $29 for the week, or $4.50 a day. In a kind of inverse of the miracle of Chanukah, what was supposed to last for seven days only survived for four. As she wrote on GOOP, Paltrow broke down for some chicken, fresh vegetables, and half a bag of black licorice.
From the beginning, Paltrow’s well-intentioned yet sloppily-executed effort to see how the other half lives did not go over well. We are talking, after all, about the multimillionaire who said that “to have a regular job and be a mom” is not as challenging as life on a movie set. Previous attempts to relate and, worse, preach to the average working parents out there have flopped.
Either unaware of or unaffected by this history of backlash, Paltrow accepted the SNAP challenge from celebrity chef Mario Batali. She made a donation to the Food Bank For New York City, and set out to buy her groceries.
This is what $29 gets you at the grocery store—what families on SNAP (i.e. food stamps) have to live on for a week. pic.twitter.com/OZMPA3nxij
— Gwyneth Paltrow (@GwynethPaltrow) April 9, 2015
The Pinterest-style photograph of her groceries seemed to be a deliberate, straight-up trolling — seven limes? — and would have provided Paltrow, as Rebecca Vipond Brink of The Frisky reported, with about 1,000 calories a day.
Even if Paltrow had stocked her cupboards with more practical and/or realistic food, her endeavor would still have been problematic. That is, unless she went to the trouble of replicating the challenges many SNAP participants face, e.g. depriving herself of a car and relying solely on public transit; relocating temporarily to a supermarket desert where access to fresh fruits and vegetables is a luxury, not a given; preparing meals in limited time frames. And even then, there this caveat: the $4.50 a day figure cited by Paltrow is intended to supplement a food budget, not replace it.
Ed Bolen, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who focuses on state and federal issues in SNAP, said the challenge is “a great way for an individual to gain some understanding. But it’s odd for a celebrity, or almost anybody, to say ‘I don’t understand what it’s like to be poor, so I’ll do this experience, then I’ll turn around and tell other people what it was like.’ It’s just a hard way to do it.”
The complications are many. Let us turn, as so many do in times of confusion, to Paltrow, who “is bringing lot of baggage and is not fully experiencing what it is to be a SNAP participant,” said Bolen. “Did she cook the food herself or have a private chef do it? Did she use condiments to augment the meal? Could she set aside the time to cook from scratch? For a lot of SNAP participants, their reality is different from someone with a well-stocked kitchen and enough time.”
Some households do get more than $4.50 a day; they’re eligible for the “maximum benefit” if they have no dollars to contribute. So you could get by only on that amount for a week to see what it’s like, “But it’s not how most households experience SNAP,” Bolen explained. “It gets into this confusing messaging thing. Of course someone with no other income for food is obviously facing a lot of crises, so it’s not even realistic to say you’re doing it cheaply. We can all live, for a week or so, on a pretty cheap diet. [But] that’s one snippet of what it’s like.”
And say Paltrow had made it through the week: that might only make some of the misconceptions around SNAP worse. “People could probably do okay for a week on very little food, and if they think ‘I did it!’, or the message is, ‘it’s not that bad,’ or ‘it’s fun because it’s an adventure of a sort,’ I’m not sure that’s a great message either,” said Bolen. “Because for many households, it’s not like they got to choose to do this once. Going to six different grocery stores to get bargains might be fun that one time you do it. But it loses its adventure-ness pretty quickly.”
It’s a greatest-strength-is-the-greatest-weakness conundrum: SNAP challenges can raise awareness, which is fantastic, but in doing so, “it can help perpetuate stereotypes or stunt awareness.”
“I appreciate that she’s willing to do it,” said Bolen. “She could very easily insulate herself and not have to think about it at all. It just has it’s limits as far as experience.”
The act of mocking her does bring attention to the issue: hate-reads are still reads. “You’re realizing not everyone can by this fresh food and the limes and all that,” Bolen said.
How could Paltrow have done better? She could give her microphone to someone who really understands what relying on SNAP is like: let someone who is or has ever been on SNAP describe the meals they make, or what the biggest struggles are. She’s ostensibly trying to give someone else a voice, but in doing so, she’s speaking on behalf of this vast group of people about whom she knows basically nothing.
So don’t give up hope, whoever among you is optimistic that Paltrow could take another crack at helping the hungry. Even Paltrow knows she could do better. As she said of her four-days-to-failure experience, “I would give myself a C-.”