Taking heat

Stop attacking Gwyneth Paltrow for taking on the Food Stamp challenge

She might not really relate to the poor, but that doesn’t mean we should automatically discount her efforts

Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Gwyneth Paltrow can barely take a breath, let alone post on social media, without igniting controversy. She’s been more or less continuously–and unfairly–under attack since announcing on Thursday that she’ll take on the “Food Bank Challenge.” At the urging of her friend, Italian celebrity chef Mario Batali, Paltrow will spend a week subsisting on $29’ worth of groceries–the amount allotted each person enrolled in New York City’s “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program” (or “SNAP,” formerly known as food stamps). Batali launched the SNAP challenge to raise awareness of hunger and draw attention to the fact that Congress has cut funding for food stamps twice since 2013.

Nearly 1.8 million New Yorkers currently depend on SNAP; about 20 percent of them have no other source of income. Politicians like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and the mayors of Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Phoenix, have all taken on some version of the SNAP challenge, and it’s popular among students and religious groups around the country. Participants are encouraged to tweet or blog about their unappetizing meals and hunger throughout the week.

Paltrow–who’s often been mocked for promoting prohibitively expensive, bougie diets in her cookbooks and on her lifestyle website, GOOP–tweeted a picture of her $29 haul of groceries. It did not look like what you’d expect to find in the cart of someone relying on food stamps.

Paltrow selected some caloric foods–a dozen eggs, a bag of black beans, rice, tortilla shells, avocado–but she also bought low-calories seasonings like cilantro and limes. According to calculations by The Frisky, her groceries amount to about 7,000 calories, giving her just 1,000 calories a day to get by on.

As bloggers have been quick to point out, this could practically pass for a spread on GOOP or Instagram. “Bitch, please,” writes Emily Zanotti at the American Spectator, who says Paltrow has already failed “miserably.” It’s true that Paltrow’s selection probably would not provide enough sustenance for a woman who works on her feet all day or doesn’t have time to cook. “Busy mothers can’t live on lettuce, limes and beans,” scolded The Telegraph. But Paltrow isn’t pretending to be shopping for someone else– and the point of the challenge is to show that it’s hard to follow a healthy diet without going hungry on such a low budget.

Other critics point out that celebrities aren’t experiencing real hardship when they take on finite “poverty challenges” or publicity stunts. “Vast difference living on food stamps for 1 week knowing you’ve a safety net of millions, and that being your life every day Gwyneth Paltrow,” reads one representative tweet. Well, obviously. But as far as we know, Paltrow isn’t pretending to be suffering or starving.

According to another line of criticism, Paltrow should be donating to Food Bank instead of taking the SNAP challenge. But making charitable donations and doing publicity stunts aren’t mutually exclusive. (In fact, Paltrow has contributed about $75,000 to the Food Bank of New York City.) As this whole controversy proves, Paltrow’s greatest tool is not her wealth but her ability to generate headlines–which can translate into more donations.

The most unfair objection holds that Paltrow just shouldn’t bother because, as a rich person, she can’t possibly relate to the plight of actual SNAP recipients. It may be true that she will never experience adversity akin to New Yorkers living below the poverty line, but to deem her incapable of empathy by virtue of her wealth is defeatist and counterproductive. Regardless of her financial situation, trying to draw attention to the problem of hunger and the inadequacy of food stamps is commendable. Batali called on Sting and Deborah Harry to take on the challenge, too, but they have yet to accept it.

It’s easy to make fun of Paltrow and her pretensions: her promotion of $1,000 throw blankets, her (presumably hyperbolic) claim that she’d rather smoke crack than eat cheese from a tin, her insistence that she hasn’t divorced musician Chris Martin so much as “consciously uncoupled” from him. And taking on the SNAP challenge doesn’t make Paltrow a hero or a champion of the common man. But it doesn’t make her a villain, either.


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