CNN Hypes Gwyneth Paltrow's 'Food Stamp Challenge' Participation — And Its Bogus Benchmark

April 12th, 2015 4:50 PM

On Saturday, CNN hyped actress and self-appointed "lifestyle guru" Gwyneth Paltrow's participation in the "Food Stamp Challenge." This is the fundamentally dishonest campaign which has been working for at least eight years to convince Americans that benefits provided under the federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are inadequate.

As usual, Paltrow has taken up the challenge to get by for a week on a drastically understated amount which does not reflect the program's real provisions. As has almost always been the case with journalists covering politicians, celebrities and others who have taken up the "challenge," CNN's Jareen Imam didn't question the correctness of the weekly amount involved:

Gwyneth Paltrow cuts back for food stamp challenge

Gwyneth Paltrow, the actress turned lifestyle guru, is known for promoting detoxes and health cleanses on her site,

But she's now bringing awareness to the difficulties of life on food stamps.

In a tweet Friday, Paltrow showcased an array of leafy greens, dried beans and rice, purchased for the amount a person living on food stamps is allotted each week, she explained.

Paltrow's Friday morning tweet actually serves up a double dose of deception:


The most obvious deception here is that even if Paltrow's $29 amount is correct (which it's not), it does not represent "what families on SNAP (i.e. food stamps) have to live on for a week." It represent what families get per household member. This is not quibbling. Many uninformed people will really believe that families only get a grand total of 29 bucks in benefits per week, regardless of household size.

But of course, and as has been the case since the Food Stamp Challenge's inception, the "get by for a week" amount does not reflect the program's provisions. If Paltrow, her publicist, or any of her other gofers had bothered to visit the program's eligibility page, they would have found a table containing the following monthly figures, which I have helpfully converted into per-person per-week amounts (dividing by 4.345 weeks in an average month):


I have written variations of the explanation which follows at least a dozen times since this deceptive campaign began. Here we go again.

If the $29 Paltrow is using is indeed the correct per-person per-week Food Stamp benefit in the US, the example that immediately follows the table at the linked Fact Sheet page — where a $649 Maximum Monthly Allotment is reduced to $308 based on available income —  makes it perfectly clear that the $29 is what remains AFTER a person or family on Food Stamps has contributed what the Program believes they can contribute towards buying food from their own resources.

The $29 is definitely NOT what “what families on SNAP (i.e. food stamps) have to live on for a week," as Paltrow claims is the case. The Program’s table assumes that Food Stamp recipients have other resources available to spend more, and it’s reasonable to assume that many if not most recipients do indeed spend more.

CNN's Imam also wrote the following:

The amount of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits a person can get is based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Thrifty Food Plan.

That's not true. The Maximum Monthly Allotment (see table above) is what "is based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Thrifty Food Plan." Actual benefits are lower because USDA's calculations assume that families with some income can and should devote part of it to feeding themselves. Imagine that.

As I've also written many times (the following is from my first related post in 2007):

Now perhaps it’s the case that USDA’s allotments are inadequate, or that the deductions for available resources are unreasonable. But the allotments are closely in line with the “Thrifty Plan” version of the agency’s most recent “Cost of Food at Home” report, and it isn’t unreasonable to expect recipients of government benefits to be thrifty.

Those who wish to expand SNAP program spending seldom try to discuss the adequacy of the Thrifty Plan from a dietary perspective. They instead prefer to have gullible "challenge" participants use a dollar amount that is typically understated by one-third or more (in Paltrow's case, the understatement is 35 percent, the $15.65 difference noted above divided by $44.65).

So we can add Imam's story to the long list of failures by journalists to expose the Food Stamp Challenge as an outrageiously dishonest attempt to generate public outrage in the name of expanding the welfare state.

Cross-posted at