Why Gwyneth Was Wrong About The Food Stamp SNAP Challenge

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Impoverished families don't need more tone-deaf celebrities appropriating their struggles in the name of "awareness."

By now, the Internet has had its fun with Gwyneth Paltrow's attempt (and subsequent failure) at taking the SNAP challenge. Designed to raise awareness of the plight of families living in poverty, participants in the challenge are tasked with feeding their families on only the $4.14 per person given to food stamp recipients each day.

Gwyneth threw in the towel after just four days.

Like Gwyneth, I make feeding my family healthy foods a priority. I shop organic and local, avoid GMOs, and buy very few processed foods. Unlike Gwyneth, I'm on a tight budget. In fact, I have been on a quest to reduce my weekly grocery bill for a long time, and last year I devoted an entire month to feeding my family of eight on $175 per week without sacrificing food quality. At $3.13 per person per day, I actually fed my family healthy, organic foods for a month on less than what the SNAP challenge dictates. So, despite Gwyneth's claims to the contrary, it is possible to feed a family on a food stamp budget. It just isn't very practical.

As a single, disabled mother of seven kids, preparing healthy meals is a struggle. However, one thing that I have in spades is time. I meal plan during my weekly IV infusions. I rely on my crockpot almost every day, but I have the entire morning to slowly cut up meat and vegetables and get them inside the crockpot. And, on days when even that is beyond my abilities, I have three teenagers ready and willing (or at least willing to be coerced) to make a meal themselves. We share cooking duties and they do all of the clean up.

By contrast, before I became disabled, I routinely worked 60-80 hour weeks. I struggled to find time to form a coherent thought—much less meal plan, grocery shop, cook, and clean up. My children were younger then, and they weren't able to assist in the cooking. We ate out, in some form or another, more than we ate at home. Simply putting a meal on the table required time and preparation that just didn't exist in my life. And that was with a comfortable, firmly middle-class income.

What Gwyneth's SNAP challenge failed to take into account is the reality of living in poverty, which goes far beyond the simple math of eating on $4.14 per day. How many jobs is the average SNAP recipient working? Does she have reliable transportation? If it is public transportation, how long does it take her just to get to the grocery store? Are there any lower cost, healthier food markets in her area? Does she have time to prepare food, or is she relying on items that she can grab and go? And, does she have a kitchen equipped with the cooking supplies she needs to prepare a variety of healthy foods?

In Gwyneth's case, of course, she has a team of staffers who can shop and meal plan for her. Heck, they can even prepare the meals and clean up, too! But, even with all of that help, she still failed the challenge after only four days—and a whole lot of limes.

I applauded Gwyneth when she began the challenge. I even approved of her first foray into budget cooking. While her excess of limes was questionable, she was on the right track; she loaded up on dry legumes and rice, which are inexpensive staples, and she supplemented them with eggs, fresh produce, and healthy fats. 

Where she stumbled was allowing herself the privilege to fail.

It's tempting to agree with Gwyneth and dismiss the SNAP challenge as "impossible." After all, $4.14 a day isn't much when a single fast food meal costs in excess of $5. Healthier options like a dozen organic eggs or a single pound of grass-fed ground beef each ring up over that $4.14 daily limit, too. It can be daunting to try to come up with a healthy menu on a small budget, but most of us don't have any other options. Our "SNAP challenge" doesn't last a week, and we can't give up after a few days when the going gets tough.

I think that Gwyneth's heart was in the right place. But what she doesn't seem to understand is that dismissing someone's reality as "impossible" is invalidating their experience. If her goal was to understand the plight of those living in poverty, and to shed awareness on their struggles, she could have turned to actual people living in poverty and learned their tips and tricks. She could've asked her celebrity chef friends how to cut food costs. She even could've admitted temporary defeat while simultaneously vowing to try again.

It isn't impossible to feed a family healthy, fresh foods on a food stamp budget. But it does require hours of careful planning, budgeting, food preparation, and cooking that is simply not practical for most low-income households. What impoverished families need is not more tone-deaf celebrities appropriating their struggles in the name of "awareness," but a food stamp program that provides enough money for recipients to purchase healthy, nutritious foods that don't require hours of preparation. They also need practical, real-world tips and tricks to help them maximize their food dollars while minimizing the amount of time spent in the kitchen.

Instead, what they got from Gwyneth was a shrug, a recipe for black bean cakes with grilled corn salsa that looks like it requires roughly a decade to prepare, and a diatribe against gender wage inequality. And that's about as unaware as it gets.

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