A few weeks back, Gwyneth Paltrow was challenged by Mario Batali to take the SNAP Challange and attempted to live on a food stamp budget for a week. For a single person, the average benefit per week is $29, she spent $24.40.
$24.40 got her some tortillas, frozen peas, an avocado, brown rice, black beans, an ear of corn, some fresh kale, scallions, romaine lettuce, a head of garlic, an onion, a jalapeno, a yam, a tomato, and 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 limes*. Some choices smart and frugal, some a little more naive. But a reasonable basket of goods if you are trying to see how far a SNAP budget goes while trying to eat healthy, with some semblance to what you typically eat.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with that experiment. Gwyneth Paltrow challenged herself to a learning experience and used to her celebrity to extend it to others. For that she should be applauded. I think a lot of people would be surprised to see how fast $25 goes when that’s all you’ve got and you’d like to keep some fresh produce in the mix. Just demonstrating that is plenty.
Not everyone agreed. People lined up to jump all over her.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going single out the Washington Posts, Max Ehrenfreund, who’s particularly obnoxious “take down” came under the headline “Gwyneth Paltrow bought on food stamps what only rich people buy” had this to say:
Yet the real reason that Paltrow’s experiment felt unrealistic and even a little bit insulting was that in coming up with a shopping list, she revealed just how out of touch she is with life in poverty. Here’s what she bought with her food stamps, as revealed in a recent tweet, compared to the kinds of foods sold at a Rhode Island grocery market often frequented by customers using food stamps.
Paltrow’s choice of beans, rice, corn and eggs were economical, and so was the sweet potato. In most respects, though, Paltrow’s purchases were wildly unrealistic for a person on food stamps.
Besides scrambled eggs and maybe corn on the cob, there’s not really anything for the kids to make at home while their parents are at work, unless they’re precocious chefs. There is no string cheese for them for when they get home from school. There are no canned soups or frozen entrees for when their mother is called in for an extra shift and comes home exhausted — nothing that can be prepared in less than half an hour, at the most. Those beans would have to soak for half a day before cooking. Even the lettuce would have to be washed — if there is a grocery store nearby that carries fresh lettuce, which is unlikely in many urban American neighborhoods.
There’s no meat in the basket, so maybe the expectation is that low-income families are vegetarian.
There is a lot to nitpick with but lets hit on just three problems with his critique.
1. There is nothing wrong with showing that you can’t buy very much fresh produce on a SNAP budget.
In fact, it’s plenty. You can’t do that AND simulate the stereotypical diet of a single mom, as Ehrenfreund would have prefered, at the same time. Further, Ehrenfreund’s criticism that she didn’t included any snacks for kids fails, because she didn’t set her challenge up to simulate feeding kids. She had a budget for one person for one week, which was hard enough. How was she supposed to feed herself AND kids on $24.40? If she was going to be feeding kids, her budget would have been larger, and a full month or a multi-person SNAP budget is actually an easier puzzle to solve than the typical SNAP Challenge of one person for one week. On one person, one week, there is no room for bulk shopping or cooking in big batches and freezing.
Here’s the thing. There are a lot of different things you could illustrate in a SNAP Challenge, but you can’t do all of them at once. It’s unfair to criticize Paltrow for picking one clear aspect and following through with that. She showed that trying to eat in a way that she feels is reasonable is impossible. That’s a perfectly decent lesson that will be sufficiently eye-opening to lots of people. Everyone seems to think she should have picked some other aspect, but when you think about it, the lesson she chose to highlight was the one she was very well positioned to illustrate. What would it prove to have Gwyneth Paltrow living on Sunny D and Hot Pockets for a week? Nothing. (It is fun to think about, though.)
2. There is no such thing as an average SNAP recipient.
“Yet the real reason that Paltrow’s experiment felt unrealistic and even a little bit insulting was that in coming up with a shopping list, she revealed just how out of touch she is with life in poverty.” Actually, what’s insulting is the idea that “the poor” universally refers to a single mother, probably of color, struggling against inter-generational poverty. There are all sorts of people, from many walks of life whom are eligible for food stamps. They cook and eat all different kinds of ways. People on SNAP cook from scratch more than the average American. They have to.
Just last week the New York Times profiled “a home health care worker in Durham, N.C.; a McDonald’s cashier in Chicago; a bank teller in New York; an adjunct professor in Maywood, Ill” yet in scouring their imaginations for poor people to contrast with Gwyneth Paltrow, they could only come up with a stereotype to judge her choices against. Is it so hard to imagine that a bank teller in New York could be a vegetarian? Or that an adjunct professor would hew to fresh produce? What about all the students who are eligible for SNAP?
Ehrenfreund went so far as too criticize Paltrow for including a recipe that called for a food processor, as if that were wildly unrealistic. Perhaps in all his reading about what it’s like to be poor in America, he never read about these things called thrift stores.
The idea that “the poor” are monolithic is really unhelpful. The idea that only the chronically poor use SNAP is unhelpful. After three decades of unrelenting attacks on unions, anti-poverty programs and working (and not working) people lots of different people are eligible for SNAP and many avoid it out of a pointless shame or a lack of knowledge that they are eligible – in large part because we’ve constructed such a narrow stereotype of who is poor and what kinds of people should seek public assistance.
I’ve been on food stamps and I managed to eat more like the way Gwyneth Paltrow attempted, than in the way that Ehrenfreund projects. And I know many others who have done the same.
One of the things that we, as a country, really need to wrap our heads around is that in 2015, the New Deal era is over. Poverty isn’t just for “poor people” any more.
3. If you feel the need to show that you are “down with the people” by outflanking Gwyneth Paltrow, maybe your street cred isn’t what you think it is.
I have nothing more to add to number 3.
*It should be pointed out People have that you can get lime 7 for a buck in So. Cal. and I don’t think everyone always realizes that you can get that price without buying all 7. Even so, just buying 2 or 3 limes would have cut her budget from $24.40 to like $23.80. BFD.