What Can We Learn From The Food Stamp Challenge

April 23, 2015  |  

What is the goal of a food stamp challenge?

No really, when you stop to think about it, what really is the lesson we all are supposed to learn when celebrities and politicans and regular lay persons force themselves to live like the poor in America?

As reported on her blog GOOP, everybody’s favorite pretentious health nut actress Gwyneth Paltrow accepted a challenge last week from chef guy friend Mario Batali to try to live on $29 a week, which is what supposedly many low income families on SNAP survive on for their weekly allowances. From the onset, she admitted that she already knew this challenge was going to be a dud and just donated money to a New York area Food Bank. Sometimes you just got to acknowlege your limitations and move on. However, not many had suspected that the challenge would be this bad.

In the picture she posted on her blog of grocery purchases from her SNAP funds, I wasn’t quite sure if Paltrow was actually planning on making a meal or a couple of margaritas. I’m talking a single loaf of bread, one avocado, one ear of corn, one onion, one sweet potato, some leafy vegegtables, some eggs, black beans, a bag of peas and six limes. I don’t know why she needed six limes. But she did say that she made black bean taquitas and black bean cakes and corn salsa with the allowance, which is healthy and certainly sounds delicious enough.

Still, I do wonder where she decided to go food shopping? I know $29 isn’t lots, but I also know that there are some produce stores around my way (and around other ways in America), where you can get a big bags of corn, onions, sweet potatos and other veggies for like a buck a bag each. But everybody got their special places they like to shop. And as reported on her blog, her favorite place made her quit by the fourth day. In particular, she writes:

“As I suspected, we only made it through about four days, when I personally broke and had some chicken and fresh vegetables (and in full transparency, half a bag of black licorice). My perspective has been forever altered by how difficult it was to eat wholesome, nutritious food on that budget, even for just a few days—a challenge that 47 million Americans face every day, week, and year. A few takeaways from the week were that vegetarian staples liked dried beans and rice go a long way—and we were able to come up with a few recipes on a super tight budget.”

That’s nice. And in all honesty, I give her a virtual high five for even trying to understand what poor people have to go through in America. However she then goes on a tangent, albiet well-meaning, about equal pay, which in my opinion, totally misses the point of understanding the economic plight of the poor. In particular, she writes:

“After trying to complete this challenge (I would give myself a C-), I am even more outraged that there is still not equal pay in the workplace. Sorry to go on a tangent, but many hardworking mothers are being asked to do the impossible: Feed their families on a budget which can only support food businesses that provide low-quality food. The food system in our beautiful country needs to be subjected to a heavy revision—it is a cyclical problem, with repercussions that we all feel. I’m not suggesting everyone eat organic food from some high horse in the sky. I’m saying everyone should be able to afford fresh, real food. And if women were paid an equal wage, families might have more of a choice in the grocery aisles, not to mention in the rest of their lives.”

And this is where I have to side-eye Paltrow a little here. I know that she is all about eating “organic” and assumes the rest of us are disease-infested zombies because we eat the stuff the government sprays down with bug spray. But it assumes priorities on poor people that are largely rich people’s contemplations. In other words, eating organic from places like Whole Paycheck is a luxury, which is why it is marketed to people with the means to afford it. We learn more and more every day that the stuff marketed as organic is not necessarily…well, organic. Heck, it is not all that healthy.

Likewise, those without money, even when they have a little more, are not necessarily going to go for “better” quality vegetables because they have more money, but rather they will probably use those extra dollars to purchase more food. As noted by a UK study called the Cost of Poverty, essential goods and services that people need to participate in society take up a relatively larger share of low-income budgets. Therefore, we pay more for less. And with the extra money, we will pay more to get more. You know, so they can make it the full seven days without fake-starving like Paltrow by the fourth day?

And that is part of the reason why I dislike the food stamp challenge. It is not just about healthy and organic food. Heck, surviving on limited allowances isn’t really about the food at all. As I mentioned earlier, those who have been without for so long, know how to make a $29 budget work. I do it all the time. And I still manage to eat healthy and I eat until I’m full. However the real challenge is getting the food itself. One stop at the produce aisle for cheap vegetables; my staple and non-perishable items at a discount supermarket, which is on the other side of the neighborhood. Then it is a trip to a discount drug store to get deodorant, toilet tissue, body lotion and all other personal hygiene care. Unlike, many of my fellow comrades in the economic struggle, I have a car, which makes my weekly trek for food and such much easier (with exception of the cost of gas).

As pointed out by another article in Next City, a 2011 Brookings study revealed that while 70 percent of adults in American metropolitan areas can find a transit stop within three-quarters of a mile from home, the “typical” resident can only use that transit to reach 30 percent of jobs within 90-minutes or less. Then there are other deterrents; as this article from AlterNet points out, low-income drivers pay more for car insurance. We also pay more on average for our mortgage interest. We are more likely to buy furniture and appliances through pricey rent-to-own businesses.

In other words, it is not just about food. It is about food, shelter, clothing, personal items, and the same thing for children. It is the hardship between those things. It’s about a structure put into place to ensure that those things are not accessible to us all. You can pay folks equally and raise the minimum wage and they will still not be able to get by without reliable transportation or when they are paying way more for stuff that Paltrow has the privledge to pay fair market value for.

And I know I sound like a downer considering that she tried, however those efforts only aim to make those with privilege feel better about their privileged existence, because at least they tried to live partly like the working poor, who do so without asking and without much fanfare, every single day.

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