Charitable demonstrations futile for affecting change

When raising awareness of poverty, diseases or charitable causes, we must always consider how our privileges affect the message we are trying to relay. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow brought attention to the Food Bank NYC Challenge—the challenge of only spending $29 on food for a week to understand how it feels to live on food stamps—by tweeting a picture of the groceries she purchased on the tight budget. Paltrow made some unrealistic food choices, however, such as purchasing fresh kale and seven limes.

While some praise Paltrow for raising awareness of poverty through the challenge, her actions actually teach individuals that similar charitable causes misrepresent and even harm the underprivileged they seek to help.

Paltrow’s attempt at this challenge does not significantly help families on food stamps. We all know poverty exists, so living “in their shoes” does not bring about significant awareness to an unknown issue. No money is being raised with the challenge—which would be the best way to support the poor. Living the experience that poor people are already very familiar with does not help or improve their situations—it just confirms them.

A common trait with raising awareness through “demonstration” is that most participants can go back to their comfortable lives after the demonstration is over. Next week, Paltrow will still be a rich, white celebrity who can afford luxuries for her family without working over 40 labor-intensive hours each week—an unfortunate reality for a lot of impoverished, working-class people.

For a more accurate demonstration, Paltrow should’ve spent $29 per person for an average four-person family and only purchased food she can cook quickly and easily—while still maintaining sufficient calories and nutritional value—during a demanding work week.

Paltrow’s choice of purchasing exclusively fresh produce implies that people on food stamps can eat healthier than they may already do. This notion, however, disregards instances such as those in Missouri where legislators want to ban the use of food stamps on steak and fish or the reality that fast food is more convenient for busy families compared to cooking full meals. It is evident that there is a complexity to surviving on food stamps that privileged celebrities like Paltrow cannot understand.

The Food Bank NYC Challenge may reach people who had not previously understood the struggles of poor people, but overall, it gives the message that living on food stamps is not as difficult as it really is. We should not relay the message that people can eat as healthily and easily as Paltrow does—at the end of the day, impoverished individuals do not have any other choice. Effective charities should not capitalize on or undermine the experiences and struggles of those they intend to help.