Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Gwyneth Paltrow "food stamp challenge” people love to hate

A couple weeks ago, Gwyneth Paltrow announced that she would be undertaking a food stamp challenge. She would attempt to buy all her food for 29 dollars a week, the average weekly per person benefit on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”). Paltrow only made it 4 days before she “…finally broke and had some chicken and fresh vegetables.” Her challenge raised serious media attention—both supporting and criticizing her effort.

Paltrow posted a picture to her Twitter page that included all the items she purchased for the week. She was widely criticized for buying the "wrong foods" including seven limes, kale, cilantro and hot peppers, instead of picking other foods that provide more caloric bang for each dollar spent.

Ironically, this criticism is similar to that which families on food stamps frequently face. Food stamp recipients report being criticized for buying fancy food, junk food, and even fruits and vegetables. Worse, politicians are trying to enact these criticisms into law. A recent bill, introduced by a Republican Senator from Missouri, proposed prohibiting food stamp recipients from using their benefits to purchase “cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood or steak.”

Other critics insisted that Paltrow shouldn't use her celebrity to participate in a poverty challenge, because being poor and hungry is not an experiment. They thought she could make a more meaningful contribution by donating some of her $280 million dollar net worth to food stamp families. Paltrow fueled this criticism by attending an $80 per plate promotional event within days of failing the challenge.

These are compelling arguments as to why Paltrow’s effort may have been flawed. But to her credit, the coverage of her food stamp challenge brought the issue of hunger and SNAP to the forefront of media coverage. Jess McIntosh, communications director for Emily’s List, appeared as part of a guest panel on MSNBC, where she stated, “I have been in a setting like this discussing SNAP twice now this week and that has never happened in my career.”

It's high time this issue is given the attention it deserves. National Food Insecurity, the measure of whether household members have enough food for an active and healthy life, remained the same in 2012 and 2013. The most recent data from the USDA suggests that 15.8% of persons in the United States don't get enough food to eat everyday. This equals roughly 49 million Americans.

Women may feel the strongest effects of this shortfall. In writing about her experience on the SNAP budget and admitting defeat on her blog, Paltrow called for a close in the gender wage gap. She stated, “if women were paid an equal wage, families might have more of a choice in the grocery isles…[the discrepancy between wages for men and women] isn’t just unacceptable, this is reprehensible.” As Paltrow suggests, there is a connection between women’s lower wages and an increased need for SNAP benefits.

According to Pew Research, women are about twice as likely as men to have received Food Stamps at some point in their lives. The research suggests that 23% of women have received food stamps where only 12% of men have been on the SNAP program. Minority women in particular are far more likely than their male counterparts to use the SNAP program: 39% of black women have used the SNAP program compared with 21% of black men; similarly, 31% of Hispanic women have been on the SNAP program where only 14% of Hispanic men received the same assistance. In every category studied, women receiving SNAP benefits outnumbered men by a substantial margin.

At first glance, I was extremely skeptical about the food stamp challenge. After all, Gwyneth Paltrow was once quoted saying that she “would rather smoke crack than eat cheese from a can.” My initial response was that Paltrow was just grandstanding. It seems rather easy to live on food stamps for a couple of days when you know you have millions of dollars in your bank account should you get hungry. However, if her goal was awareness, her challenge has definitely been a success. She captured the attention of mainstream media.

Personally, I’ve learned something from her efforts. Maybe I was uninformed, but I wasn’t aware that some individuals receive only $29 to purchase groceries for an entire week (21 meals on $29!). I’m not saying she had perfect execution (Paltrow gave herself a C- for execution), but at the very least, her challenge prompted me to look deeper into the food stamp system and to write this blog post. For more on the gender wage gap, read this post.

1 comment:

Jessica S. said...

I think it is great that Gwyneth brought attention to this issue. Immediately, though, people mocked her and the groceries she bought. I wish they would have instead reflected on the need for public benefits. Some individuals (and I am being completely serious) think women get money from the sky. They assume women are dependents with families and men who cater to their material needs, and then they decry the reality of people collecting benefits. All without learning anything about inequalities in this country.