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When I first heard about Gwyneth Paltrow’s effort to bring awareness to the challenges of living on food stamps (now referred to as SNAP, an acronym for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) by living on a meager $29 worth of groceries for a week, I did the exact same thing most people did – I rolled my eyes and cracked every joke I could. Every Paltrow interview is a bastion of pretentiousness. Some of her greatest quotes include such phrases, as “I am who I am I can’t pretend to be somebody who makes $25,000 a year,” and “I would rather die than let my kid eat Cup-a-Soup.”

That being said, when Paltrow wrote about the experience on her personal blog GOOP last week, admitting she’d only last about four days on the challenge, I must admit — I rolled my eyes again.

But let me explain.

The problem isn’t Paltrow, who we can only expect to do what she’s always done – live a life where anything short of the most expensive option is inadequate and insufficient. If anything, the problem is that SNAP Challenges, which have gained popularity over the past decade thanks to countless politicians with points to prove, overlook the key parts of what make living on modest means so difficult.

Food stamp challenges have long served as ways to make political statements – either from politicians eager to prove how insufficient the dollar amount is, or from food banks in major cities challenging big names to bring attention to how stingy the dollar amount can be. The Food Bank of NYC, which was responsible for Paltrow’s participation, has been encouraging people to take the #FoodBankNYCChallenge for years, asking participants to “walk in the shoes of 1.7 million New Yorkers who rely on SNAP” for seven full days.


Living in poverty is complex. It’s not merely a case of being unemployed and, therefore, needing someone to prop you up while you’re unable to prop up yourself. When five of the top seven largest employers in the United States are also part of the lowest-paying industries in the country, it’s further evidence of the reality that many SNAP recipients are actually employed.

For those who are employed but also earning perilously close to the minimum wage that often can’t even help one pay rent, that means expenses like cars, gas, insurance, and maintenance on your vehicle are too costly. If your place of employment isn’t within walking distance, this means public transit. A commute that would’ve otherwise been a smooth ride from point A to point B is now filled with constant stops to all points between which, in most cities, that your regular commute has potentially doubled in length. Add to this, the challenge of having children – your commute grows even longer, as you have to plot a stop on your ride to take your child to school or day care – which is a budget drain in and of itself.

Then comes the issue of feeding your family. What effect does poverty have on your ability to make sound, solid decisions at the grocery store? Do you even have a grocery store nearby, or are you visiting your local convenience store? What will influence your choices? Will you buy fresh, quality produce that you might not get the chance to cook because you’re so exhausted after work, or will you buy something shelf-stable, inexpensive, and reliably decent-tasting? Will you buy your kids that same Cup-of-Soup that Paltrow eschewed, because you know that they can cook it themselves, and give you your 25 minutes of peace on the couch after such a long day on your feet? Or will you grin and bear it, and cook the healthy meal?


In 2013, Harvard economist Sandhil Mullainathan told the Washington Post, “Poverty is the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter. Picture yourself after an all-nighter. Being poor is like that every day.” In the 2013 viral essay “Why I Make Terrible Decisions,” the author, Linda Tirado, made the case for poor decision-making, explaining, “I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing?” Later, she admits: “We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.”

Poverty is much like an inescapable weight on your shoulders, and an inability to feed oneself (or do any other number of things for oneself) is not only crippling to one’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth, but to one’s ability to see a way out. The working poor aren’t even the entire story – there are myriad people who were once comfortably middle class, who might’ve lost their jobs and found themselves incapable of finding new employment. There are the people who have succumbed to illness – mental or physical – and are incapable of being gainfully employed. And that's just the beginning. For those who are homeless, the hard truth is that, for those with no stove or refrigerator, $29 for seven days likely may not get them very far at all.

It’s also worth noting, before anyone decides to jump in and remind us that “education is the key,” that pursuing higher education is expensive – not only in tuition costs, but in additional support. (Books, school supplies, public transit fees, sitters during class time for those with children, food to eat while away from home, are just some of the costs.) Because poverty is often generational, many children consider it their duty to take jobs at early ages to help support their family. It can feel noble, morally right, and – upon looking at their family’s faces when they realize that another person will be bringing a few more dollars to the family – worth it. A failed attempt at higher education can sometimes even seem like a sign that supporting the family is one’s original purpose.


Truthfully, I don’t have a problem with Paltrow’s – or anyone else’s – failed attempt at “surviving” SNAP. What I have a problem with, is that upon the admission of failure, the public’s sense of empathy stops at the celebrity.

The public watches the challenger’s struggle. Many giggle at the meals they’re forced to eat for the week. There’s always the opening overhead shot of everything the challenger bought, which the public then ceremoniously picks apart with criticisms of who purchased too much produce and who purchased the junk food that some believe SNAP recipients shouldn’t be allowed to buy. We watch their struggle with cooking – Senator Cory Booker once lamented having to eat the sweet potato he burned – and we wince at how little they have leftover after shopping for the week. As Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee once noted during his SNAP challenge, he left his grocery with “two small bags of groceries, not a lot of food.”

Where’s the loud, public, and emphatic empathy for the people who live this way every week, with no “out” when things go bad? Where are the demands that our politicians keep these people in mind when they cast their vote on the very bills that determine how much money SNAP recipients receive, and who can qualify? Where is the outrage that there is no way out for them?


I don’t mind the voyeurism involved with watching public figures participate in SNAP challenges. I don’t mind the oversimplification of poverty and what it’s like to live and eat under such conditions. I don’t even mind the inevitable failure that often follows. What I do mind is the fact that, when we turn our heads towards these spectacles, we seem to turn our backs on our nation’s most vulnerable. Maybe we should challenge ourselves to change that.

Erika Nicole Kendall is a writer and nutritionist who lives in Brooklyn, NY, who writes about making healthy eating affordable on her own site. Reach out to her on Twitter at @bgg2wl.

Erika Nicole Kendall is a writer and nutritionist who lives in Brooklyn, NY, who writes about making healthy eating affordable on her own site. Reach out to her on Twitter at @bgg2wl.