Gwyneth Paltrow didn't last long on food stamps. The actress announced last week she would attempt to feed herself for a week on just $29, a little less than the typical person in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has to spend on food. Paltrow gave up after just four days.
People on food stamps can't give in, of course. Any extra money that they spend on food is money they're not spending on something else, whether that's an old bill or a bus fare. From the beginning, Paltrow had the freedom to go back to the grocery store.
Yet the real reason that Paltrow's experiment felt unrealistic and even a little bit insulting was that in coming up with a shopping list, she revealed just how out of touch she is with life in poverty. Here's what she bought with her food stamps, as revealed in a recent tweet, compared to the kinds of foods sold at a Rhode Island grocery market often frequented by customers using food stamps.
Paltrow's choice of beans, rice, corn and eggs were economical, and so was the sweet potato. In most respects, though, Paltrow's purchases were wildly unrealistic for a person on food stamps.
Besides scrambled eggs and maybe corn on the cob, there's not really anything for the kids to make at home while their parents are at work, unless they're precocious chefs. There is no string cheese for them for when they get home from school. There are no canned soups or frozen entrees for when their mother is called in for an extra shift and comes home exhausted -- nothing that can be prepared in less than half an hour, at the most. Those beans would have to soak for half a day before cooking. Even the lettuce would have to be washed -- if there is a grocery store nearby that carries fresh lettuce, which is unlikely in many urban American neighborhoods.
There's no meat in the basket, so maybe the expectation is that low-income families are vegetarian. And if you've even once been worried about your next paycheck, you would likely not buy seven limes on a $29 weekly budget.
In short, this shopping basket suggests Paltrow never seriously regarded the challenge as an attempt to understand being poor in the United States.
Paltrow's shopping expedition was obviously an attempt to demonstrate what a healthy diet might look like on a very tight budget. She writes that she was frustrated that so many Americans cannot realistically afford to eat fresh food, and her effort was a genuine attempt to raise attention and money for those providing aid to the poor.
But the reality is more complex. Americans in general have unhealthy diets, and they don't buy much produce, no matter how much they earn. And shoppers on food stamps who do want to feed their families more greens don't just have to worry about the cost, but also about finicky children, spoilage, and any number of other hassles that are just minor inconveniences for more affluent families.
Researchers at the Department of Agriculture have been considering various aspects of the American diet for years. They've concluded that encouraging the poor to buy more fruits and vegetables is not just a matter of money, and they've found that poor households with slightly more cash tend to spend it on beef and prepared frozen food:
The evidence is not promising for achieving large gains in fruit and vegetable purchases through increasing food stamp benefits... Nearly all households—not just low-income households—consume low amounts of fruits and vegetables relative to Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommendations. The knowledge that even higher income households do not consume enough fruits and vegetables to meet DGA recommendation suggests that other factors besides income play a strong role in fruit and vegetable purchasing behavior.
One way to get a sense of the priorities of food stamp recipients is to figure out what businesses serving them are stocking up on. And in 2013, the Washington Post's Eli Saslow visited Miguel Pichardo, the owner of a grocery store in the town of Woonsocket, R.I., whose sales are driven almost entirely by food stamps. Here's what the proprietor purchased to offer his customers ahead of the first of the month:
Pichardo had placed a $10,000 product order to satisfy his diverse customers, half of them white, a quarter Hispanic, 15 percent African American, plus a dozen immigrant populations drawn to Woonsocket by the promise of cheap housing. He had ordered 150 pounds of the tenderloin steak favored by the newly poor, still clinging to old habits; and 200 cases of chicken gizzards for the inter-generationally poor, savvy enough to spot a deal at less than $2 a pound. He had bought pizza pockets for the working poor and plantains for the immigrant poor. He had stocked up on East African marinades, Spanish rice, Cuban snacks and Mexican fruit juice.
If money is not the main reason that the poor can't eat more fresh vegetables, some might think it's just a lack of access to fresh produce. Grocery stores are hard to find in many American cities, especially if you don't own a car. But research on the subject hasn't found a strong connection between the presence of grocery stores and the diets of poor families.
So other factors are likely at work--factors related to having children, unpredictable schedules and a completely understandable desire for a dose of comfort.
Like other Americans, the poor eat foods that are convenient, tasty and familiar. Sometimes they may even make comparatively expensive purchases on, say, ground beef, frozen pizzas or (if they are immigrants) imported sauces from their home countries. Working parents have to prepare a satisfying meal for their families, even if they don't have much time. Dry beans and potatoes might be just as filling, but they take hours of work in the kitchen to prepare. If the parents don't have the time to cook, they'll eat out, just like everyone else in this country.
Sarah Bowen, a sociologist at North Carolina State University, notes that if the children won't eat what the parents have cooked, the wasted food amounts to a major financial loss.
Bowen has been interviewing more than 100 poor mothers for three years. Her preliminary results suggest that these women do not eat more unhealthy foods such as candy, soda or refined grains than the general population, but they do eat fewer healthy foods such as fresh fruits and seafood, which are expensive and don't keep well.
Many of the families in her study only shop once a month, when they can borrow a car from a friend or because shopping requires a bus trip followed by a taxi ride. Produce will spoil, so they buy canned fruits and vegetables instead.
For all of these reasons, trying to improve the diets of poor American families by giving them easier access to produce might prove difficult. More generous public benefits or work that pays better with more reliable hours would likely allow the poor to make somewhat healthier decisions. They might not eat more fresh produce, but they might buy leaner cuts of meat or healthier brands of prepared food.
For kids, another approach is ask school cafeteria chefs to come up with healthier recipes. That's been the effect of First Lady's Michelle Obama's initiative to improve nutrition in schools. It's been a success by some measures, even though kids complain about it, as Wonkblog has previously reported.
Bowen's caution about the difficulty of preparing food that everyone in the family will eat applies to new recipes as well. "When you try any new recipe, it's a risk, especially with kids. If they don't like it, you have all that food wasted," she said. "Middle-class families can afford to be more experimental with their food."
Paltrow offered several "budget-conscious recipes" that are, sadly, far removed from the real world of the working poor. Here is the first instruction in her recipe for "Black bean cakes with grilled corn salsa":
To make the black bean cakes, combine first 6 ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. Add salt to taste, then add egg and pulse again to combine. Shape the mixture into 8 cakes. If you have time, place the cakes in the fridge for an hour or more to firm up.
And that's assuming you own a food processor, and that you've already cooked the beans.
This post has been expanded with more details about other policies to encourage healthy eating, including the efforts by First Lady Michelle Obama.