The XX Factor

Gwyneth Paltrow Is on Food Stamps This Week. Stop Making Fun of Her.

Gwyneth Paltrow in Berlin last year.

Photo by Britta Pedersen/AFP/Getty Images

Let’s get a few things out of the way. First of all, Goop is ridiculous, right? Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle empire is the pristine Fortress of Solitude for New York Times Style section superelites. It will make a chiffonade of your mockery and serve it back to you as garnish on a cucumber-dandelion-cayenne smoothie. But the latest Gwyneth contretemps—more on that in a second—is not about whether Goop should exist or whether people living in poverty can live their very best Goop lives. Per usual, it’s about whether Gwyneth Paltrow is entitled.

Specifically, it’s about whether Gwyneth Paltrow is entitled to participate in what is commonly known as a “SNAP challenge,” an exercise that asks people to live only at a food stamps–level budget for all of their food expenses, usually for about a week. Celebrities including Josh Groban, Hugh Jackman, and Sophia Bush have taken part, and so has Gwyneth’s ex Ben Affleck. Paltrow took up the SNAP challenge this week, posting a photo of her grocery cart and getting pan-seared for it by various online magazines and especially the Twitter masses. According to her critics, Gwyneth’s choices—she dared to include cilantro, limes, and a hot pepper, alongside black beans, eggs, and rice—are too Goop-y, photographed too preciously, not Dickensian enough. For some, it was not enough food (um, part of the point of the exercise?). In any case, it was wrong, wrong, wrong.

To which I say: Cool your burners. In this case, we should all be Team Gwyneth.

SNAP is an acronym for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—it’s what people mean when they use the dated term food stamps. For a single adult, an average SNAP benefit is around $28 per week, or less than $1.40 per meal. Depending on net monthly income, a family of four may receive about $160 per week. The great majority of SNAP users are either children, senior citizens, or people with disabilities, and nearly two-thirds of those kids are living in single-parent households, the majority of which are led by women. And inconsequential though those amounts may sound, this small benefit has helped lift millions of households out of poverty.

SNAP is on Gwyneth’s radar this week because, once again, it’s on conservative policymakers’ radar. Missouri State Rep. Rick Brattin recently introduced legislation that would ban the use of SNAP dollars for, among other food items, “seafood or steak.” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants a clean drug test from SNAP applicants before they can receive benefits, even though time and again such initiatives only prove that people on assistance do not test positive at higher rates than the general population. Still other states are planning to lift waivers that permit able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDs, to receive SNAP when they live in high-unemployment areas. Add to this to the House of Representatives’ own plan to convert SNAP to a block grant program—which would eventually kick millions off its rolls and reduce funding by $125 billion—and you have a supersized threat to what is arguably one of the most successful government programs currently in existence.

The SNAP challenge isn’t a perfect promotional opportunity for SNAP. It doesn’t address the fundamental, systemic issues that lead to hunger and food insecurity. It doesn’t even remotely begin to replicate the experience of living in poverty or needing SNAP. It can’t meaningfully recreate the ways in which persistent stress, lack of sleep, hunger, and just simply not having enough money affect the decision-making or well-being of people living in poverty, or how a lack of adequate transportation or community infrastructure can create barriers to accessing nutritious or fresh foods. And by providing a weekly food allowance, it doesn’t contemplate how difficult it can be to budget for an entire month’s groceries and still fill your basket with food that doesn’t come in a box or a can. It is simply not a facsimile of the lived lives of the people who actually depend upon and use SNAP.

And that’s OK. No one expects the people who complete the SNAP challenge—and those people include me—to have sudden-onset epiphanies about protecting the social safety net, or even to find the exercise all that challenging. Paltrow was asked to participate by her friend, renowned chef Mario Batali, who serves on the board of the Food Bank for New York City. Organizations and advocates who work on behalf of those who are homeless or living in poverty often use campaigns like the SNAP challenge or Walk in Their Shoes days to help support their cause and communicate to a wider audience. The point is not to offer an authentic experience, but to plant a seed of personal connection between serious issues (food insecurity, homelessness) and those whose wealth, power, and resources shield them from those issues. That personal connection can grow into advocacy, donations, or even simply a powerful (and free) marketing tool from the media it generates—resources that most nonprofits are perpetually hungry for.

And yes, we even need champions with FoodTV shows and rarefied lifestyle websites. People such as Batali and Tom Colicchio have evolved from chefs to celebrity chefs to charity-minded celebrity chefs to understanding that, as Colicchio says, “It’s about votes.” Colicchio has become vocal about food access and nutrition, not just on Twitter or at charitable galas, but in committee hearings with lawmakers and in print on editorial pages. He’s not alone. When Cory Booker, then-mayor of Newark, New Jersey, did a SNAP challenge, he shared its daily effects by blogging and tweeting throughout the week to his 1.5 million followers: how burning a sweet potato while living on a slim budget left him with the choice of eating the blackened food or going without anything; how the sheer boredom of the same food each day affected his mood; how his low energy reduced his attention span at work. His experience corroborated a strong policy argument for school breakfast and lunch programs.

Poverty issues need these privileged, wealthy champions because SNAP, like many government assistance programs, suffers from word-of-mouth mythology. Look under any article that mentions food stamps and you’ll undoubtedly read comments from those who insist that no one actually ever goes hungry in the United States. You’ll find at least three eagle-eyed people who have “seen someone on welfare in the grocery store” using their EBT card to make any number of illegal or in-the-eyes-of-the-beholder immoral purchases. Brattin himself claims he personally witnessed “people” using EBT cards to purchase “filet mignons and crab legs,” and goes so far as to call that “system abuse.” It’s like that old children’s game of telephone—each time the story is told, it gets more distorted yet accepted as correct.

Here’s the thing: There’s no “winning” a SNAP challenge. Perhaps the one thing it can accurately replicate is the judgment that both rich celebrities and underserved single moms can expect for even the smallest of personal decisions—putting a candy bar in your cart instead of an apple, or daring to buy a bag of coffee beans. Both Gwyneth and those probably-fictitious people buying crab legs can (and should) tell you: There’s nothing wrong with buying nice food with your EBT card.

Gwyneth Paltrow believes that good food is important—the sheer breadth and scale of Goop is proof enough of that. Is it really beyond the pale that she could make a good advocate for eliminating food deserts, for example, or maximizing SNAP benefits at farmers markets? We don’t yet know if taking the SNAP challenge is her version of empathy-chic, but good grief, give her a chance. And give organizations like the NYC Food Bank the chance to deputize powerful people to help their cause. If GOOP is truly the cultural opposite of food stamps, then maybe Gwyneth Paltrow is exactly the right person to learn from a SNAP challenge.

This article represents the writer’s views and not necessarily those of her employer.