Gwyneth and I have more in common than I thought

Healthy groceriesLast week, Hollywood icon and occasional social activist Gwyneth Paltrow took on Mario Batali’s #FoodBankNYCChallenge to live on a food stamp budget of $29 for one week.

For me, this conjures an image of the statuesque starlet hauling her sustainably produced, fair trade, organic canvas shopping totes down to Whole Foods for nothing more than a photo op. Apologies to Gwyneth and her fans, but she is, after all, the woman whose Holiday Gift Guide did once famously include a nearly $1,000 cashmere throw blanket. Everyman, she is not, nor will ever be.

Gwyneth tweeted a photo of her weekly food purchase on a $29 budget. It took all of about 29 seconds for the ridicule to start.

For my part, I was trying to fathom what Gwyneth could possibly prepare from the food she purchased, that would keep her satiated for longer than a couple of days. After her week, I’ll wager she’ll have had her fill of of pico de gallo, kale chips, and veggie scrambles in corn tortillas.

I decided two things about this photo: (1) however much she tires of eggs, beans, rice, and salad, Gwyn is certainly going to get her vitamins, and (2) everybody needs to stay upwind for a while, because that girl is going to be a rootin’ tootin’ machine.

Others have already determined Gwyneth’s grocery haul would fall short of the caloric needs of healthy, active adults by few hundred calories a day, others wondered what the hell she could be doing with the seven limes.

This all leaves Gwyneth, not for the first time, perceived as terribly unrealistic when it comes to the plight of the rest of us, especially anyone living at or near poverty.

Which brings us to the real story behind this effort, and the conversation to which it contributes. Sure, Gwyneth’s grocery haul may be unrealistic for a real person. But so too does act of surviving for a week on $29 fall short of illustrating the actual experience of poverty.

When Mike and I were first married, he had just graduated from college. I was working as a secretary for a whopping hourly $6.75. For the four months he sought work, we lived at roughly one and a half times the poverty level. When he did manage to find a job, it added a whole $5 an hour to our monthly budget.

For most of the next two years, after rent, a car payment, gas, utilities, and student loan bills, our food budget was around $30 per week.

For the both of us.

True, this was 25 years ago. Yes, the cost of living in our part of the country is fairly reasonable. But, seriously. $30 per week, people.

Lucky for us, I’d become the budget diva in college, when I’d worked three part time jobs just to afford school. I had a system: no single item over $1 went in my cart. Not cereal, nor milk, nor real cheese. We lived on Ramen noodles, peanut butter, balloon bread, boxed dinners, canned soups, ground beef, eggs, potatoes, beans, apples, bananas and lettuce. Someone in Mike’s family had gone hunting at one point, so we also had a freezer full of venison.

There was a grocery store with a weekly double coupon night. So our Tuesday date night was hightailing it over to Ridley’s for the extravagance of Cheerios.

Today I cringe at the amount of sodium and fat and preservatives we regularly ingested. On the plus side, since we couldn’t afford cable, walking whenever the weather permitted was entertainment.

These days, although I think I’ve gone to near heroic efforts to keep our food budget in check, I still spend roughly 10 times on groceries what I did then. Of course, we’re also now feeding three teenagers, and I have the luxury of higher standards, which for us includes hormone-free milk, organic eggs, local seasonal produce, and microbrew.

Could I handle such a challenge today while mitigating for picky eaters, food allergies, and diets? Could I willingly give up good beer? The answer is probably yes, especially given the fact that it is only for a short time, and knowing I’ve been able to handle that challenge before. But is that the point?

Here’s the thing: when we were living on a shoestring, neither Mike nor I ever felt poor, and now, the understanding that we were living so close to that federal designation is somewhat of a surprise.

Because, in addition to our teensy food budget, we were bolstered by:

Faith – Our situation was short lived. We were educated professionals with entry-level jobs in a recession. We didn’t know when, but we would have our day.

Purpose – Even after we stopped needing to stretch each paycheck, we continued to be frugal, and within a short time had saved enough to buy our first house.

Other Resources – We had our health, the time to plan and prepare meals, and double-coupon night. In times of dire emergency our parents could help.

Hope – Above all, we had a future to look forward to that wasn’t ever bleak. Hardships were only temporary.

I don’t believe any single week of living on a cramped budget alone gives any more than the briefest of glimpses into the reality of poverty, for Gwyneth, or any of the rest of us, poverty being more than a number on a receipt or a row of vegetables in a photo.

The irony in this whole situation is that the judgment Gwyneth is experiencing is probably not too dissimilar to that of a single mom pulling out her EBT card as others peruse the contents of her cart. It should serve as a reminder to all of us about the place for compassion and empathy.

Gwyneth will not become someone else as a result of all her kale and black beans and limes. Poverty will not cease once some or all of us learn about shopping on a tiny budget.

But a conversation about the plight of others facing dire circumstances, and the work we could be doing to help, is never pointless.


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  1. I wish she\’d done a slightly less pretentious shop but I respect her for trying. I\’m sure if you make meal planning and food shopping a full time job, cook entirely from scratch and have space for preserving you could eat a reasonablty balanced diet on this amount, you seem like you made a gallant effort. When I was a student I had a food budget of £15/week and that included cigarettes and chinese food on Friday. I\’m pretty sure I was malnourished.

    1. Oh, I know I couldn\’t have made it past my 20s on that diet. Yes, and we found room in our budget for occasional extravagances as well …

  2. Excellent post. During the years when my ex and I were both in grad school we did a lot of scraping similar to your own. I ate so much boxed pasta that I swore I would never eat mac and cheese again once one of us got a \”real\” job. Still haven\’t.

  3. This is such a wonderful post!
    I don\’t think Gwyneth deserves ANY criticism. Her point is bringing attention to the plight of those living in poverty, and she did that. I greatly admire anyone who is unselfish enough to care about other people. Too many of us say we care, but do nothing to help.
    Six and a half years ago, I was living with my children below poverty level, and I would have been thrilled to get $29 a week in food stamps to help me provide for us better. However, I was turned down because I had a (minimum-wage) job and paid rent. They told me if I only worked part-time I could qualify for government help. Or if I lived with someone else instead of struggling to pay my own rent, I would have qualified.
    That royally pi**ed me off! Even several years and a comfortable income later, it still pi**es me off.
    But you pointed out the magic keys in this post. Faith, purpose, and hope (plus righteous anger!) gave me the means to choose the opposite path and simply keep working harder till I rose above.
    Not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone has hope or purpose or faith or other resources to see their plight as temporary.
    Love, love this post!

  4. The one thing I don\’t like about these \”I\’m shopping like a poor person for a week\” things, is that anyone can live for a week with a tight budget. It\’s when you have to do it week after week after week that it get tough. It has to be insulting and frustrating to the people who actually live with these limits every week to have a celebrity airily plop down some rice and beans and say \”there, what was so hard about that?\”

    1. Exactly. And I know she didn\’t make it through the whole week before someone caught her going out to lunch. Was she planning on turning down that latte someone brought her on the set?

  5. Wow, this post is eye opening. I actually thought that looked like quite a bit of food for $29, but it would be hard to live on just that for a week! I\’m impressed with how frugal you were and with the budget you kept! We had a time in our lives where we had to count every single cent and make the dollar stretch. We still do watch what we spend and keep a budget, but I\’m grateful I don\’t have to count every penny anymore!

    1. I honestly don\’t think I could go back to those days. I watch what we spend, still, but I would feel terrible going without the fresh produce, and high quality meat. Thanks for reading.

  6. What would we do if we didn\’t have Gwyneth to make fun of? Even her well-meaning stuff comes off out of touch. I\’m impressed you lived on $30 a week. I remember those days being young and broke. Its still sad to think there are plenty of people who make minimum wage, work hard, and still barely scrape by.

    1. These days, I\’m impressed by that figure, too. As goofy as Gwyneth came off, I don\’t know that any celebrity, or anyone of any means at all would be able to pull that off. Someone commented on this piece in HuffPo about a little village Marie Antoinette had made up so she and her friends could play as milkmaids for diversion. This has that same ring to it.

  7. It\’s the \”other\” resources like faith and health that get people through this, isn\’t it? Eating like G did for a week might seem palatable when you know you can go back to a better budget–but week after week, I can imagine it would get soul crushing.