To the extent that any publicity is good publicity, Gwyneth Paltrow succeeded in her attempt last week to raise awareness about the challenges poor people face in affording food -- even if most of the awareness came in the form of eye-rolling and criticism for the movie star and self-styled lifestyle guru.
Paltrow accepted the Food Stamp Challenge from celebrity chef Mario Batali, an advocate for the challenge in his role as member of the Food Bank, as a means of raising awareness about low-income Americans' struggles to maintain basic levels of sustenance. Participants are challenged to try to live on $29 worth of food for a week -- the average U.S. food stamp budget, according to the Food Bank of New York City.
Batali, who himself took the challenge with a $31 food allowance, reportedly said he was left "f****** starving" by the end of the week.
From the start, Paltrow's poorly conceived, if photogenic, effort drew criticism.
The ingredients the actress bought, looking more like the elements of a health food smoothie or juice cleanse, were not only glaringly insufficient to cover three meals a day for seven days, but calorically impractical for sustaining a typical human diet.
Paltrow ultimately admitted defeat on the fourth day of the challenge, confessing on her blog, GOOP, that she broke down and bought "some chicken and fresh vegetables (and in full transparency, half a bag of black licorice)." She gave herself a grade of C- for the attempt.
Despite what many lampooned as an act of absurdity tantamount to trolling, the wave of criticism directed at her effort did bring a surge of awareness to food insecurity issues: managing a budget within the context of poverty's challenges; meeting the caloric demands of a typical, active service industry lifestyle; and accessing healthy foods of the sort Paltrow had purchased -- not to mention the burdens of feeding children as a single mother.
"I get the micro-criticism of Gwyneth Paltrow being the most absurdly wrong messenger for this ever," Jess McIntosh, communications director for Emily's List, said Friday on msnbc's "NOW with Alex Wagner." "That said, I have been in a setting like this discussing SNAP twice now this week and that has never happened in my career," she added, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the new name for the Food Stamp program.
Paltrow herself took the failure as an opportunity to rail against income inequality, arguing that "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 actress isn't the first to grapple with the challenge. In 2012, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, then still the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, invented a version of the challenge in the course of a Twitter exchange and ultimately struggled through a week of what he hashtagged #SNAPChallenge.
Prior to that, Democratic Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C., marked National Hunger Awareness Day in 2007 by living on $21 for the week and cosponsoring legislation to increase food stamp benefits.
Congress has cut SNAP funding twice since 2013, according to the Food Bank, driving "an immediate increase in visitors" to soup kitchens and food pantries. The Paltrow spectacle also comes as nutritional assistance and other programs for Americans in poverty are coming under increasing scrutiny from conservatives. Last week, a Missouri state representative drew widespread scorn for suggesting limits be placed on the type of foods available to assistance recipients.