What happens when you cross a celebrity chef with a celebrity actress/lifestyle coach? You get the “Food Stamp Challenge.”

Last week, American chef and restaurateur Mario Batali challenged Gwyneth Paltrow, the Academy Award-winning actress and avid foodie, to eat on $29 a week, purportedly the amount a single food stamp user receives in benefits.

The stunt is part of an awareness campaign by the Food Bank for New York City to highlight congressional budget cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP (formerly food stamps) — and asks people to participate so they can “understand what our friends and neighbors are going through.”

So what did Gwynnie buy? Aside from smart choices like eggs, rice and black beans, the actress purchased pricier items like an avocado and romaine lettuce. She also purchased several limes, which perhaps she needs for some kind of citrus cleanse. No meat, no dairy, no fruit. (I’m not sure where she shops because the items on her grocery list can be purchased at Wal-Mart for roughly $15.)

But Ms. Paltrow — indeed the entire exercise — misses the point. It shouldn’t ask famous people to buy kale and quinoa with only a few bucks; the challenge should show SNAP recipients how to eat on a limited budget. That approach would not only aid food stamp users, but also help millions of working families that struggle to buy groceries each week.

It’s not enough that Middle America is squeezed with higher taxes and food costs; the culinary elite wants to serve up a side dish of guilt for even the most marginal government spending cuts.

SNAP is a prime example of America’s generosity and compassion. No one wants people — particularly children, the elderly and disabled — to go hungry. But over the last decade, SNAP has exploded in both cost and number of participants. According to the Congressional Budget Office, in 2008, SNAP cost $29 billion and served about 28 million people. Next year, SNAP will cost approximately $84 billion and serve more than 45 million people.

In addition to SNAP, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children receives nearly $7 billion. (According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program serves more than half the babies in the U.S.). The Child Nutrition Program — which pays for billions of school lunches, breakfasts and snacks — costs an additional $22 billion.

So why the food stamp challenge? With a nationwide network of nonprofits — in addition to costly government programs — it’s hard to argue that America’s commitment to feeding the poor and hungry is inadequate. The challenge is directed at Republican lawmakers and policies that the liberal culinary elite don’t like. Placing any limits on an exploding government program earns the ire of the elite foodies who then seethe that cost-cutting Republicans are “pro-hunger.”

At the same time, working families that don’t qualify for food support are ignored by the food movement leaders (but please buy their $30-plus cookbooks and watch their TV shows). The struggle to buy affordable and healthy food remains a daily reality for millions of families.

So here’s a real challenge for chef Batali and his celebrity pals: Get up to make breakfast and pack a nutritious, satisfying lunch for your kids every day. Then shop, cook and serve a healthy dinner for a family of four after work. And do it on $36,000 a year, which is just over the income requirements to qualify for SNAP. Then maybe the culinary elite will really “understand what our friends and neighbors are going through.”



Julie Kelly is a suburban Chicago-based food writer and the owner of Now You’re Cooking, which offers cooking classes. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.


©2015 Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at chicagotribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC