When I think of actress Gwyneth Paltrow, I think of her ridiculous neologisms like “conscious uncoupling,” which she used to describe her divorce. I think of her chipper guest appearance on Glee, where she covered a PG version of Cee-Lo Green. I think of her namesake lifestyle blog, “goop,” which she “curates” with her favorite pseudoscientific health claims, new recipes and entire articles dedicated to things like monogrammed jewelry. She’s the uncontested queen of bougie, but last week, she decided to come out of her Fabergé-egg shell and decided to eat frugally.
As part of the national “Food Stamp Challenge,” chef Mario Batali challenged Paltrow to participate in a campaign to raise money and awareness for the Food Bank for New York City, in which she would subsist on $29 of groceries for an entire week. That’s the amount, allegedly, that a recipient of food assistance benefits is able to spend. The challenge has seen a number of iterations — our very own senator, Chris Murphy, participated in the challenge two years ago.
“Dubious that I could complete the week,” Paltrow wrote on her website, “I donated to the Food Bank at the outset.” She predicted her own fate: After four days of working on the challenge, she cracked, splurging on chicken, vegetables and half a bag of licorice.
In attempting this “challenge,” Paltrow brought attention to the sorry state of SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the flagship American welfare program that provides benefits to qualifying low-income people to spend on food. That she couldn’t follow through with her temporary experiment shows how difficult it has to be to face hunger as a reality every day. The challenge was a well-meaning effort on Paltrow’s part to leverage her celebrity status to some activist end. But with celebrity comes responsibility to inform and inspire — a responsibility she failed to fulfill.
I’m not the first person to question Paltrow for her antics. An article on Vox pointed out that the food stamp challenge and its $29 figure is based on many faulty assumptions. The way SNAP benefits actually work is much more complicated. Rather than a fixed number, SNAP dollars are calculated on an income-based sliding scale and are meant to supplement whatever income a recipient spends on food, not replace it altogether.
I’d add that Paltrow is privileged with easy access to food — a nearby grocery store, transportation to get there, free time, cooking equipment and culinary know-how — privileges that SNAP beneficiaries don’t usually have. Though the challenge is rife with inaccuracies, Paltrow took no opportunity to address them, doing a disservice to the issue that she was trying to bring to light.
Maybe that’s too harsh. A Slate article lauded Paltrow for using her celebrity status to talk about something that isn’t as inane as monogrammed jewelry for once. But to what extent was this stunt meant to discuss the intricacies of a struggling government program, and to what extent was it for Paltrow’s own benefit?
In the context of her website, the stunt seemed more concerned with Paltrow and her self-righteous aura. She has used her blog as a platform to share her favorite juice cleanses and crash diets, and her endorsement of the food stamp challenge seems less like a call for social change and more like an attempt to showcase yet another trial of dietary self-control. Paltrow benefits from the lived experience of someone else’s poverty, from the do-gooder appeal she acquires by participating in the challenge. But the low-income person she’s playing does not.
Maybe if Paltrow enlisted her stretch limo of a readership to do something about hunger in the U.S., her “poverty tourism,” as one Time article called it, would be a little more acceptable. But she leaves no course of action for her followers to take, other than a half-hearted plea to donate to food banks. But even then, that recommendation is shortsighted — Paltrow spent four days realizing the drawbacks of an underfunded and poorly understood assistance program, and yet makes no call to action to get to the root of the problem.
A more appropriate end to Paltrow’s food stamp fiasco could have been to ask her followers to advocate for food assistance by calling a member of Congress or voting for pro-entitlement candidates. At the very least, she could have acknowledged the flaws inherent to her challenge and the complexities of hunger. Not only did Paltrow fail the challenge — she didn’t do it justice, either. Her engagement with poverty was a mere publicity stunt.
Austin Bryniarski is a junior in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .