Throughout Gwyneth Paltrow’s second career as a homemaking expert through her newsletter Goop, she’s courted controversy pretty regularly. Her representation of her divorce from Chris Martin as a “conscious uncoupling,” for instance, got slammed for perceived pretentiousness, and her representation of herself as an everywoman of sorts has long provided grist for her haters. And her most recent scandal is perfectly congruent with her careerlong image problems. Paltrow’s attempt to raise awareness of the difficulty of feeding a family on a week’s worth of food stamp benefits has been treated as recklessly out-of-touch. That’s exactly why it’s important.
Paltrow’s participation in the “SNAP Challenge,” living for a week off of food purchased for less than $29, has been bandied about the internet for nearly a week; Paltrow purchased some very useful and cost-effective foodstuffs, like eggs and dried beans, and others that have less evident use-value, like cilantro, garlic, and seven limes.
Obviously, this was not the most efficient $29 grocery basket in history. That it was put forward as a reasonable purchase by a person whose brand glamorizes luxurious and hard-to-find ingredients makes her critics’ work fairly tidy. But it’s not so wildly outside the realm of possibility that a person on food stamps might want flavorful, interesting food like salsa (made from that cilantro and those limes) as a meager addition to healthful staples. It’s easy to criticize Paltrow for representing her $29 purchase, with its small indulgences, as prototypical. But those small indulgences, whether they’re Paltrow’s herbs and limes or the various staples that lawmakers have tried to eliminate from food assistance programs, can help make the circumstances marginally less bleak.
Paltrow’s intention, here, matters: In keeping with a careerlong framing of herself as uniquely equipped to teach people, she was trying to raise awareness of poverty. This an issue that her fellow stars as well as most politicians touch on rarely; Paltrow was doing a good thing. That the reaction she’s gotten has been largely derisive is so predictable as to be boring. But one suspects Paltrow, who’s spoken candidly and cannily about her critics, knew this was coming, just as she knew “conscious uncoupling” would get her mocked but simply couldn’t hold back her desire to teach people about divorce. Simply by being her irrepressible self and seeking a subtle touch of gourmet in straitened circumstances, she’s brought far more attention to the issues of poverty and hunger than could the average, less provocative celebrity.
Paltrow, in subsisting for a week largely on her homemade salsa, is raising real questions about just how much more food she might have bought by cutting the last indulgence out of a weekly food-stamp budget. (The answer: not that much!) How many of the critics who reflexively treat the actress as somehow malicious have done that much? There’s an opportunity for a real conversation about how America treats its poor — but it’s wasted by telling a Hollywood actress that next time she tries to raise awareness, she should get more dried beans.