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How Gwyneth Paltrow hurt America’s poor and hungry

Her uber-privileged food stamp challenge obscures the many obstacles low income people face.

Gwyneth Paltrow arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Last week, Gwyneth Paltrow attempted to survive on just $29 worth of food for a week to raise awareness for those on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. She failedBy day four, she was eating chicken, fresh vegetables and a half-bag of licorice.

Paltrow’s paltry attempt to “walk in the shoes” of the poor greatly offended the Internet; scores of rebuttals came flooding in. Her critics mocked her privileged tastes, saying she wasted money on limes and kale. People in the middle class rushed to point out that their own food budget hovers around $29. My own grocery shopping this weekend, with no changes to what I buy, came in around $120 for my family of four (not including cleaning supplies and other non-edibles). See, I could be saying, it’s not that hard, unless you’re super out-of-touch.

But there is a difference. I have cereal in my pantry, side dishes in my cupboards, and lunch-meat already in my fridge. I have a stock of food and condiments at the ready that I simply build upon each week. Many do not. Poverty is not a food budget alone. This experiment doesn’t take into account that those living at or under the poverty line also need cleaners, toiletries, condiments, spices, medicines and the like. And they need to pay the rent, keep their car brakes going and make sure the electricity stays on.

And it’s expensive to be poor. If Paltrow’s driver blows a tire on the highway, he can pull over and pay someone to fix it immediately. Someone with no money to spare would be lucky to get a tiny doughnut on it, then drive the car like that for however many months the doughnut lasts, damaging the car irreparably because they simply cannot afford to fix it. So a $200 problem becomes a $2,000 problem, and they end up farther in the hole than they were before. Nothing in Paltrow’s kale purchase speaks to this aspect of the life.

Not to mention that Paltrow certainly didn’t grab her SNAP-equal haul from a store that would actually accept Electronic Benefit Transfers. While those places sometimes do have fresh produce and healthy fare, more often than not, they stock more filling, more processed, cheaper wares.

Many of the nation’s impoverished also live in food deserts, areas which lack grocery stores, farmers markets, and healthy food providers. They are more common than we think, and you cannot buy food you do not have access to. Paltrow’s spin on this experiment completely obliterates this reality. It’s almost a push for poor people to do better in healthy eating, ignoring that it’s an impossibility for many.

“By glamorizing a limited budget in a piously frugal ‘look what you can do with it’ sort of way, it suggests that people who aren’t eating as beautifully are doing it wrong and deserving of additional scorn,” former nutritionist Stephanie Jolly told me. “This isn’t an exercise in actually eating what SNAP recipients can eat, and it creates false impressions of what this lived reality actually is, making it easier for people to make false comparisons to their own situation.”

If we’re going to have an open and honest conversation about poverty in the United States, we need to set a baseline of understanding that includes the entire picture. Otherwise we’re selling an already impoverished population short. Think before you raise awareness. Be sure of what kind of awareness you are raising. And if you want to make a difference, raise more than awareness. Raise money, donate food and time, make a commitment of more than a week to help those in need, not imitate them.