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Do Celebrity Food Stamp Challenges Accurately Document Poverty In America?

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Annabelle Bamforth
New Hampshire-based writer Annabelle Bamforth is TruthInMedia.com's editor-in-chief, focused on breaking the left/right paradigm through new media and local politics. To share a news tip, contact annabelle@truthinmedia.com.

Over the weekend, actress Gwyneth Paltrow announced her intent to live off of $29 worth of food for one week- a “challenge” presented to her by chef Mario Batali as part of his “Food Bank Challenge” to raise awareness about hunger and press Congress to avoid making cuts to the federal food stamp program known as SNAP. This idea is not brand new; in 2012, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) pledged to live off of $29.78 worth of food for a week while he was still Newark’s mayor. Booker said he wanted to “get people to have a higher level of consciousness thus a higher level of empathy but more to understand our common investment in programs like this and their importance.”

A politician making such a pledge is perceived a bit differently than a celebrity with a rumored net worth of over $100 million making the same choice. A social media frenzy blasting Paltrow for her choice to “live like the poor” for seven days could have easily been predicted.

Paltrow is well-known for her “lifestyle” website GOOP which offers various fashion suggestions including a $2,295 bomber jacket to welcome spring as well as a $75 “regenerating cleanser” in its “beauty” section. Paltrow has been disregarded by many as a celebrity who is incapable of understanding the plight of Americans using SNAP benefits. When Paltrow revealed what she chose to purchase for the week, social media users expressed their annoyance, accusing the actress of “grandstanding” and treating the challenge as a “game”or a “stunt”.

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Paltrow’s tweet showed that her $29 dollars did not go very far: she bought eggs, lettuce, beans, an onion, one avocado, a sweet potato, a jalapeno pepper, a bag of peas, one tomato, an ear of corn, garlic, cilantro and kale. She also bought seven limes, which bewildered many people. She made healthy choices, but she was criticized for the lack of calories the choices provided.

Paltrow did not disclose where she bought the items; prices of food vary widely throughout the United States. I was curious to see how far I could stretch $29 at my local supermarket in New Hampshire. This is what I brought home:

food stamp challenge

Living in a somewhat rural area, fresh vegetables are not always available or particularly attractive at this time of year. Fresh staples like apples, potatoes and bananas can be found, and meat prices are somewhat reasonable. I was even able to find low-priced cube steaks for $2.25 and a salmon filet for 99 cents, two items that Missouri State Representative Rick Brattin believes SNAP recipients shouldn’t be able to buy. My purchase cost $28.26 and the non-perishables will be donated to my local food bank, which is another supplement available to low-income individuals and families.

While my choices were not as “clean” as Paltrow’s, I found that my purchasing power may be better in the Northeast than wherever it was she bought her groceries. Is this an extravagant or ideal array of food? I do not believe so. This is merely one alternative out of countless others.

The problem with the question “How far does $29 really go?” is that it is terribly subjective. Anyone could come up with endless combinations of purchases ranging from a plethora of canned goods to a measly handful of fresh items.

The question of how much the federal government should spend on food assistance is just as subjective. There is no agreed upon dollar amount that would end hunger in America.

Paltrow successfully re-ignited conversations about the stigma of using SNAP benefits, the rising cost of food, and the notion of living off of a week’s worth of food stamps. As Paltrow has probably learned by now, it appears that when a rich public figure attempts to live temporarily as a low-income individual, the public is reminded of their own challenges that do not simply end in a week’s time and feel insulted.

The “food stamp challenge” has certainly achieved its goal of raising awareness about poverty in the United States, but it remains impossible for celebrities to accurately portray what it actually looks like.

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