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The Food Stamp Challenge: Publicity Stunt or Conversation Starter?

Mario Batali is no fool.

Mario Batali  is on the board of the New York City Food Bank. He created his Food Stamp Challenge in 2012 to raise awareness about potential cuts in the food stamp system (called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP for short.)

Batali challenged his family and some of his celebrity and politician friends to feed their family for a week on $29.00 ($1.38 per meal.) The average food stamp allotment. (While doing research this post, I found that the dollar amount can be different depending upon the person’s state, income, family size and other factors.)

Of course he talks about the Food Stamp Challenge and lessons learned when he does the challenge each year on his talk show The Chew.  I’m guessing it doesn't raise as much awareness as he’d like since people don’t watch much daytime television because they are working.

This year Batali upped the SNAP awareness challenge by a gazillion. Batali challenged controversial Gwyneth Paltrow to eat on a food stamp budget.

And the Internet went insane.

Paltrow food stamp challenge

The first thought that popped into my head when I saw what food Paltrow bought that is supposed to feed her family for a week is, “Being a vegetarian helps but girl you are going to be so sick of beans and rice before you run out of food or give up which ever comes first.”

Everyone has an opinion on what food she should and should not have bought  to get the most food for her SNAP buck (including myself.) I can’t get over the seven limes either.

Paltrow’s grocery cart looks like a rich person who never really had to pay attention to the price of what’s in her grocery cart because she has always been a rich person who never has had to pay attention to the price of the food that’s in her grocery cart. If she goes over her grocery budget, oops, but she’s always going to have the money to pay her utilities or replace a water heater when suddenly goes.

But that’s probably the point to Batali’s Food Stamp Challenge and exactly why he asked Gwyneth Paltrow to do it. Gwyneth Paltrow makes news where ever she goes. In her worldview she is an average mom with a blog who likes to share her favorite food and lifestyle tips.

The public outcry happens because the majority of public didn’t grow up wealthy and privileged in Hollywood like Paltrow (remember her mother is Blythe Danner.)  These are the folks who know there are less fortunate people and often want to help them but at the same time they can’t fathom how anyone can function without at least four nannies to watch their kids (looking at you Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.) Their $500 staple t shirt is the equivalent to the $5 staple t shirt most people wear because that’s what they can afford.

That’s why I think Mario Batali is a mad genius for getting Gwyneth Paltrow to do his Food Stamp Challenge. Paltrow being the magnet for controversy that she is, raises more awareness via social media ire in one day than Batali and the Mayor of New York did in a week. People are talking about their SNAP experiences - going hungry at the end of the month so their kids can eat, how the S stands for Supplemental but in some states it barely helps while in others the SNAP system can be easily defrauded.

Even Paltrow’s cheating a little on the Food Stamp Challenge because she’s the only one in her family doing it. Her kids are eating business as usual. I disagree with that because her kids are missing out on experiencing a good life lesson. There is a big difference in being told or watching something over experiencing it. Again I think this is another reason for asking people who have never and will never be in a SNAP situation to take the challenge.

When Batali does the Food Stamp Challenge his family of four participates. His kids eat school lunches because SNAP recipients usually qualify for the free lunch program. But that doesn’t raise as much awareness other than realizing if Mario Batali were my dad I’d ask him to pack my lunch too please.

The only thing I’d like to change on Mario Batali’s Food Stamp Challenge is to make last for a month instead of a week. That way, the participants get a better understanding what does not work and try to do better the following week.

For example looking at Gwyneth’s grocery shop everything including the cilantro, is nutrient rich and most of it is fresh produce, which is super healthy. The portions look small though. I’m not sure how filling it is going to be a couple of hours after mealtime. 

Maybe Paltrow has a plan. I admit I don’t see what it is beyond beans and rice and some sort of burrito with salsa or guacamole. I bet she would make different choices like substituting canned and frozen for fresh or adding more filling starches like pasta to her grocery cart if she had to do the SNAP Challenge for a second or third week. That would give the participants as well as those in their social media circles a better idea of the challenges of trying to supplement a family’s grocery budget with food stamps.

What do you think?

Update: Friday April 17, 2015: Gwyneth Paltrow bought enough food to last a little over three days. She wrote about it on her blog Goop.

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