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What's the Real Takeaway From Gwyneth's $29 Effort?

04/14/2015 04:33 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015
monticelllo via Getty Images

Last 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 two days.

I decided two things about this photo: (1) however much she tires of eggs, beans, rice, and salad, Gwyn would certainly 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 a healthy, active adult by a few hundred calories a day, others wondered what the hell she could be doing with seven limes.

This all leaves Gwyneth, not for the first time, perceived as laughably 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 concerning this effort, and the conversation to which it contributes. Sure, Gwyneth's grocery haul may be unrealistic for a real person. But so does the act of surviving for a week on $29 fall short of illustrating the actual experience of poverty.

When we were first married, my husband had just graduated from college. I was working as a secretary for a whopping hourly $6.75. In the 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.

There was a grocery store with a weekly double coupon special. 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 ten 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's only for a short time, and knowing I've been able to handle it before. But is that the point?

Here's the thing: when we were living on a shoestring, neither of us ever felt poor, and now, the understanding that we were living so close to that federal designation is somewhat surprising.

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 we also had family available to 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 is 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.

Beth Markley blogs about parenting and other topics at Manic Mumbling. A version of this post formerly appeared on her blog.