What $29 A Week For Food Looks Like For Actual Low-Income People (And Not Gwyneth Paltrow)

Wendy Stokesby:


Gwyneth Paltrow was tapped by Mario Batali to do the #FoodBankNYCChallenge and eat on $29 a week. She tweeted a picture of her groceries:

So let’s see, we have:

  • A dozen eggs
  • A head of romaine
  • An onion
  • Scallions
  • An avocado
  • An ear of corn
  • Kale or some other leafy green
  • One tomato
  • Cilantro
  • A package of tortillas
  • Frozen peas
  • A bag of rice
  • A bag of black beans
  • One jalapeño
  • A sweet potato

I know other people are criticizing this already, but this bothers me on a basic level because eight of those 16 items are not calorically significant. Nutritionally speaking, this is a vitamin bonanza. But people who live on SNAP benefits don’t just have to get nutrients, they have to get actual calories, because they tend to have very physical lives, doing service labor and taking care of children and not necessarily being able to afford a car and so forth.

I mean, let’s break this down to calories, right?

  • One dozen eggs: 840 calories
  • A head of romaine: Almost no calories
  • An onion: About 50 calories
  • Scallions: Almost no calories
  • One avocado: 320 calories
  • One ear of corn: 77 calories
  • Kale: Almost no calories
  • One tomato: 22 calories
  • Seven limes: 140 calories (yields from juice)
  • Cilantro: Almost no calories
  • 18 tortillas: About 900 calories
  • A 12 oz bag of frozen peas: About 150 calories
  • One 28-oz bag of brown rice: About 2800 calories
  • One 1-pound bag of black beans: About 1600 calories
  • One jalapeño: Almost no calories
  • One sweet potato: About 150 calories

Altogether, that’s 7059 calories. That means that Gwyneth will be surviving on about 1000 calories per day this week. That is, by all means, possible for a week for someone who has the option to be physically active or not. It’s possible for a week for someone who doesn’t have that option, too, actually, but it’s not sustainable over the long term for someone who has limited transportation options, negligible assistance with childcare, and probably a minimum-wage-or-less service job. The average sedentary adult burns at least 1600 calories in a day. Supposing that the average woman in America is 5’4” and weighs 165 pounds, she’d burn about 2400 calories a day even if she was moderately active, meaning that she worked a service job and took care of kids. She would be working at a 1400-calorie deficit on Gwyneth’s diet.

Which, to me, just says that Gwyneth Paltrow is out of touch, not malicious or ignorant, of course. I fed myself on $20 a week for two years. It sucked, and it caused a lot of anxiety, but I got by. A more realistic $29 shopping list would look like (basing this off of the fact that grocery tax in Illinois is 2 percent and therefore I can spend about $28 before tax):

  • One five-pound bag of potatoes: $2, 1800 calories
  • 2 dozen eggs: $4, 1700 calories
  • A five-pound bag of flash-frozen chicken breasts: $5, 2400 calories
  • A block of cheese: $1.50, 900 calories
  • A gallon of whole milk: $2.50, 2175 calories
  • 4 pounds of apples: $3, 950 calories
  • A 3-pound bag of oatmeal: $2.50, 900 calories
  • A bag of celery: $1, negligible calories
  • A 16-ounce jar of peanut butter: $2, 2650 calories
  • A 15-ounce box of raisins: $2, 1260 calories
  • A 1-pound bag of carrots: $1, 175 calories
  • A 28-ounce bag of rice: $1.50, 2800 calories

That rounds out to $28 and is about what I’d spend at my local discount store. That adds up to 17,710 calories, or 2530 calories a day. Which is about as much as I’d need to be sustained, and frankly, isn’t that unhealthy of a menu — it includes plenty of healthy fats and proteins, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. I know how to do that mental calculus, balancing between what I need to be able to get through the physical motions of my life and how much I can actually spend, because I lived it.

That being said, I lived it not in a food desert. I lived it in a suburb that was safe. I lived it with a car, even if it was a car that was on its last legs. I lived it on a little more than minimum wage, which is better than what people who qualify for SNAP benefits can say. And yes, the point of the Food Bank Challenge is to bring attention to the fact that Congress has cut SNAP benefits, and if Gwyneth Paltrow’s insane 1000-calorie-per-day diet brings attention to that fact, then all the better.

But let’s not glaze over context and circumstance, right? About 46 million Americans  are living on SNAP. And there are 23.5 million Americans living in food deserts, 13.5 million of whom are low-income. This is speculation and estimation because I don’t know how much overlap there is between low-income people and people living on SNAP, but let’s say that that means that about a quarter of the people living on SNAP, a full 25 percent, wouldn’t be able to access the menu that I proposed merely because they have no car and no grocery store within walking distance. So instead, they’re forced to spend their money at corner markets and fast food restaurants, which rack up a bill really quickly. Just one Big Mac extra value meal is $4 before tax — and that’s retail tax, not grocery tax, because the food is prepared — which means that you’d be able to get a burger, fries, and a soda 6 out of 7 days a week on SNAP (which itself only comes out to about 1300 calories), which then introduces a conversation about access to nutrition and the long-term effects of a fast food diet that I won’t even get into here. Instead of spending their money on junk food, they should put some effort into cooking and cooking is easy with kitchen sheet cheat.

However, the problem we mentioned above is so, so dire. And GOOP’s menu is worth taking a look at, because yeah, she’ll be able to live on that food for a week. But people who live on SNAP can’t. I hope that she handles this with compassion. I hope that she explains the math. She has a bigger audience than I do and more potential to make a difference. If her 1,000 calories a day ends up feeling insufficient for her, I hope that she’s honest about it, and I hope that she reflects on what 1,000 calories a day would feel like for someone who doesn’t have the access and resources and options that she does.

But then again, she’s GOOP, so maybe let’s just start having this conversation ourselves.




[Food Research and Action Center]



[Image via Twitter]

Original by Rebecca Vipond Brink

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