Dear Gwyneth: This Is What a Real SNAP Grocery Cart Looks Like #TheReal29Challenge

ebt food stamps buys one week

Dear Gwyneth: This Is What a Real SNAP Grocery Cart Looks Like #TheReal29Challenge

A few days ago I heard that Gwyneth Paltrow was attempting to live off of a low-income SNAP diet of $29/week and I visibly cringed.

It really has nothing to do with Gwyneth; it actually has more to do with celebrities taking these “poverty challenges” and splashing them all over social media to “raise awareness.”

And then, millions of followers look at those social media posts and say, “Oh wow!” and “Isn’t [insert celebrity name] brave and awesome for raising awareness about poverty in our country?”

And then, guess what happens?


It’s the “Oh WOW’ effect — people with large followings tell their audience something and the audience (probably genuinely) says, “Oh WOW!” and then that’s the end. People have a warm fuzzy feeling because they retweeted or shared these posts on Facebook. Then, they forget about it within a day and it’s helped no one.

But, back to Gwyneth and her $29 grocery store purchase…

Gwyneth Paltrow recently posted this photo on Twitter of what she purchased with $29 (out of an allotted $31) like she was living on SNAP/EBT (“food stamps”).

Gwyneth Paltrow Food Stamp Poverty Unrealistic

While what she got looks yummy, it’s just not a realistic take on what a mom of a family of four would be shopping for to feed her family for an entire week. (But it does look like Gwyneth picked out some yummy stuff to make a nice Mexican-themed meal.)

If you’re a family relying on “food stamps,” every single thing you put in your grocery cart will be something that can be stretched across multiple meals for the entire family.

Apples aren’t just snacks, they’re also cut up as fillers for oatmeal.

If you buy a roasted chicken (which are EBT approved in our state), that chicken will be used for multiple meals — chicken one night, the picked off leftover chicken added to a sauce and spooned over egg noodles on another night, and the carcass cooked in some water overnight in the crock pot for a soup on another night, with canned vegetables added later.

Hot dogs will be used as regular hot dogs one night and then cut up to use for a pasta or chili dish on another night.

Even though iceberg lettuce has almost no nutritional value, a mom can get a few nights of salad out of two heads of lettuce for $1.96. And, salad is super filling.

You probably won’t see a SNAP mom buying things like limes or garlic or avocado or jalapeno because, while those may seem like relatively inexpensive items (in the scheme of things), when you have a very limited amount to spend, every single penny counts.

What a Real SNAP Grocery Cart Looks Like

So, after the Gwyneth posting, I decided to shop like a mom who has a been designated $29 to feed her family of four for an entire week. I assumed that my two kids were at school during the day, so that was five days of lunches I didn’t have to worry about for them. (They probably get food assistance for lunch at school.)

For $28.71, this is similar to what a SNAP mom might buy:

ebt food stamps buys one week

It’s not beautiful. It’s not fresh. It’s not name brand stuff. It’s not the best nutritional value. It’s reality.

What $29 Really Buys

A SNAP mom tries to shop to fill the hungry bellies for the longest amount of time, while stretching the food until the next check. Sure, I wanted to buy some cheese, but to do that I would’ve had to get rid of the apples. So, you’re back to asking which one will combat more hunger and make a kid feel full longer? And, as we’ve talked about before, sometimes milk is the first to get left out because everyone can drink water — which is free.

On those weeks that you need diapers or feminine hygiene products or medicine, it’s going to put a real strain on the family because none of those things are covered by SNAP.

Those are the things that Gwyneth’s picture doesn’t show you.

What to Do with the “Oh Wow” Effect

So, while it’s nice to “raise awareness” (do we still need to tell everyone that there are hungry people in the U.S.?), we need to go beyond the “Oh WOW!” effect. And, the only way to do that is by doing instead of talking.

This week, go to the grocery store with $29 and shop for a family of four — like it’s your family of four. Understand what it feels like to stress over not being able to buy milk or the sick feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you have to put back a small pack of hamburger — which means less food for your kids — because you need tampons this week.

Experience how long it takes to put just a few items in your cart on $29 because you are trying to be strategic about every single decision. Can the item be stretched into a few meals? Is it filling? Will it keep my kids from waking up at night crying with hunger pangs? Does it have some nutritional value? Will it help my kid concentrate at school?

Then, after you purchase that $29 worth of stuff, take it to your local food bank or food pantry and donate it. Talk to the employees about what you’re doing and why. Ask them how it really is for families who use their services. Ask what the struggles are for the food bank. Get to know how you can help.

After that, commit to helping hungry families regularly. Volunteer at the food bank. Commit to bringing in groceries to a food pantry each month. Or, find an organization that helps feed hungry families and set up a recurring monthly donation — no matter how big or small.

Those things? Those are #TheReal29Challenge, not a few celebrities living off of $29 for a week and tweeting their followers about it.


UPDATE: The $29 (or $1.38/meal) is actually taken from the NY Food Bank Challenge that Paltrow is participating in. Although they don’t make it clear (neither Paltrow nor the food bank), the amount is actually referring to $29/week PER PERSON in the family. (There is some discrepancy on this number being low for actual SNAP amounts.) However, I wrote the post from the viewpoint of the same challenge that the food bank is asking celebs to take and what people are inferring from this challenge.

  • Regina
    Posted at 00:23h, 14 April Reply

    I agree 100%! Thanks for posting!

  • Tara
    Posted at 00:48h, 14 April Reply

    Having lived incredibly low-income (in Australia) when I was a single mum with a very small bub who was drinking medicated formula at $35/tin, I often experienced the extreme stress of having 1 loaf of bread and a packet of noodles to eat for the week because the local food bank was understocked and funds were far too low, I had nothing left in my budget to feed myself and there just wasn’t enough stretch! I’m in a far, FAR better position now and I donate a portion of our weekly income to the food bank, because I never want to see another mum in the position I was in – scared, broke and starving to keep their baby thriving.
    Thankyou so much for highlighting a better way to help x

    • Jacqueline
      Posted at 00:52h, 14 April Reply

      Wow Tara. Thank you for using your past experiences to bless others! That’s amazing.

  • Malinda Jackson
    Posted at 07:33h, 14 April Reply

    Thank you Thank you Thank you! This is what I see and LIVE personally, being a working mother of 2 kids whose fiance stays home with the kids so we don’t have to worry about state assisted childcare (which I’m actually not even sure if our state provides). I make barely enough to cover our monthly bills, and have maybe $20 left over some months, most months, nothing. Our monthly food assistance is $398. By the end of the month we’re usually left with bare minimum staples (i.e. a few bags of rice, maybe 1 bag of noodles, a couple cans of veggies which I didn’t even buy: my daughter participates in her schools backpack for nutrition program which isn’t even always nutritious but gives us a couple extra things each weekend to work with, maybe 1 more pack of some kind of meat…), you know.. the stuff that you look at and think, What the hell am I going to make with this that my kids will eat and not take 1 bite of and it goes to waste? It’s stressful, it’s scary, and there have been many days that my fiance and I have gone hungry and not eaten anything at all or eaten 1 small thing in 48 hours just to make sure we have enough food for the kids. So instead of being able to go shopping each week for what we need, we end up spending 90% of our monthly allotment on the day our benefits are released each month, leaving us with a little less than $100 to spread over the rest of the month for what we need to fill in the gaps we forgot when shopping our first trip. Maybe one month I’ll be lucky and have a little bit out of my checks to help fill these gaps, but not usually so lucky. I’ve cried myself to sleep I don’t know how many times, questioning how good of a parent I am, especially when I hear my kids asking for something more to eat and we just can’t do it because they’ll be even more hungry at the end of the month if we give them more that day. It’s not easy, it’s NOTHING like what those celebrity shopping trips look like.. The stuff in Ms. Paltrow’s basket would last our family MAYBE 2 days, the eggs stretching to maybe 3. So if I were to shop like she did, we would have hungry kids for 3-4 days of the week.

    • Jacqueline
      Posted at 10:56h, 14 April Reply

      Your story touched me beyond words this morning. I just wanted you to know that you aren’t a bad parent. At all. We will continue to fight for families like yours. Many blessings to all of you.

    • Loris Ayoub
      Posted at 11:28h, 14 April Reply

      This is so sad,to hear of people that can’t even have a proper meal for days…I am sorry for what you go throw…have you try couponning? maybe your fiance could find a job at night,for a couple of days a week so you guys can get another income…I hope your situation gets better. God bless you, you are a good mother.

  • Ashley
    Posted at 08:40h, 14 April Reply

    I agree with your post completely! Those who have not struggled really have no idea. Side note though, you can’t buy rotisserie chicken on food stamps. Anything that is precooked and warm is not eligible to be purchased. You could purchase precooked and refrigerated, but if it’s warm it’s a no go.

    • Jacqueline
      Posted at 10:56h, 14 April Reply

      In our state you can buy the rotisserie chicken (if you enlarge the pic, you can even see the EBT APPROVED sticker. LOL!). It definitely varies from state-to-state though.

    • Lena
      Posted at 21:43h, 14 April Reply

      I was going to mention that, too.

  • shell
    Posted at 09:25h, 14 April Reply

    If only you were allowed to buy a warm chicken with food stamps but you can’t!

    • Jacqueline
      Posted at 10:57h, 14 April Reply

      In our state you can buy the rotisserie chicken (if you enlarge the pic, you can even see the EBT APPROVED sticker. LOL!). It definitely varies from state-to-state though.

  • judith boggio
    Posted at 09:27h, 14 April Reply

    you would not be able to buy the chicken (no ready cooked items

    • thebassgal
      Posted at 10:06h, 14 April Reply

      Actually you can. You can purchase already cooked food as long as it is cold because that is not intended to be eaten in the store. I have EBT and our local Walmart will often put the day old chickens on clearance for $2.50 and I usually pick up a couple.

  • Lizz G.
    Posted at 10:33h, 14 April Reply

    Personally, I’d LOVE to have $30 per person per week to do my shopping. That would be $120 a week for my family. Currently, my weekly grocery budget is $50, and that includes food, household products, and diapers. We eat mostly vegetables and fruits, beans/ lentils, and whole grains, because they give me the most nutrition for my pennies. While there are always special circumstances, I find that most people could scale back their grocery bills by being smarter shoppers.

    ~ Don’t buy junk/ convenience food (cookies, chips, soda, hot dogs, lunch meat, pre-cut vegetables, pre-packaged meals, individual containers of applesauce, etc.)
    ~ When something’s a good price, I stock up.
    ~ We eat meat 2-3 time A MONTH. Eggs are a cheap protein.
    ~ Buy in bulk for a discount.
    ~ I go to farmer’s markets and negotiate deals with the farmers. I may end up with 20 pounds of bell peppers to deal with, but I plan my meals around them and freeze the rest.
    ~ Buy dry beans. They’re 1/4 the cost of canned.
    ~ Clean with salt, baking soda, and vinegar.
    ~ Wal-Mart doesn’t have good prices compared to our local grocery stores (which do buy one, get one deals and have MUCH better quality), so I never shop there. Check local stores to see if you’re really getting a good deal. If you have a Publix or Kroger nearby, you’re almost guaranteed to have better deals available there.
    ~ If you can, grow your own food. Our apartment has a patio, and we grow tomatoes, green onions, okra, green beans, summer squash, and herbs. Fresh produce that quickly pays for the cost of the seeds and then some.

    • Jacqueline
      Posted at 11:00h, 14 April Reply

      GREAT SUGGESTIONS. Also, if you go to a farmer’s market on the last day of the market close to closing time, many farmers will make DEEP discounts with you or even give you the remaining items because they don’t want to transport them back and have them sit a week going bad until the next market.

  • aimee
    Posted at 10:49h, 14 April Reply

    Being a snap recipient not too long ago has made me appreciate the struggle that many people have been faced with everyday. When I was on snap, it was a struggle daily about whether to feed myself or feed my son – and always supplementing with food pantry donations (which was needed to make it stretch. I’m so blessed to find ONE job now that can pay the bills and feed my family without snap – but still feel the struggle everyday for those who are working hard to make it work, stretch and are embarrassed of having to use snap

    • Jacqueline
      Posted at 11:11h, 14 April Reply

      You bring up a great point that I didn’t even cover — the embarrassment of having to use SNAP and what that does to you emotionally. I’m so glad you’re in a better place. MANY blessings to you and your family!

  • Sharon
    Posted at 11:04h, 14 April Reply

    SNAP was never intended to be a permanent solution, but a stop-gap until a job could be found. Maybe teaching teens how to budget, save, invest, and even technical skills in high school would be a better use of public funds. I would love to pass on the attitude of ” I have the ability and knowledge to make good decisions with my life and my money. I can make it!” to these kids, rather than an attitude of “I could make it the government would give me more!” Give a man a fish, or teach a man to fish…

    • Jacqueline
      Posted at 11:15h, 14 April Reply

      I think you raise interesting and valid points, Sharon. I do think that we need to spend more time in low-income/high poverty areas investing in skills and knowledge.

      In the meantime, for many cases, SNAP is the only thing saving their family while they try to dig themselves out. (Many of the areas we works with there are no jobs within 50+ miles, so there needs to be an infrastructure that assists while the areas combat this.)

      • Katie
        Posted at 11:39h, 14 April Reply

        It’s not that simple.
        A friend of mine receives snap benefits now. She used to be a banker. She knows how to manage money. She paid out of pocket for her mother’s cancer treatments. She was laid off from her job a few years later when her father got sick as well. Around that time she was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder with panic disorder and agoraphobia (avoidance of public places, mostly due to fear of another panic attack). A woman who once commuted almost an hour in rush hour traffic could no longer leave her home or be home alone. After paying for two funerals in just over two years, she lived on her savings for three to four years, and only then began seeking government assistance to get the disability benefits she paid into and the assistance needed to keep the house. As a single woman with no children, she gets $65 a month, so about $15/week. If she had children it would be much easier for her to get assistance, due in part to the attitude that she somehow did something to end up this way while children did not. So yes, teaching money management skills to teens is an excellent idea, but it isn’t the whole picture.

  • Debbie
    Posted at 11:57h, 14 April Reply

    I live off of SNAP benefits for food. For me and my daughter we receive $159 a month. I buy veggies, produce on sale, eggs, and such. The hard part is I am also a 4 time cancer survivor, and now dealing with heart issues. I go to the food banks and that is where I get beans, peanut butter, rice plus usually some time of meat (most times chicken). I also coupon but not as often as I like because the papers are $3.00 each. I watch my friends who don’t know I am on benefits talk about how hard it is to shop for a family of 4 on $200 a week…. I read all the post about how people should be drug tested…. and now how they shouldn’t be allowed to be seafood or steak… My doctor actually encourages me to eat seafood 3 to 4 times a week….What will happen when I can’t buy any…. or when I find that I can get a steak on sale cheaper than a pound of ground beef…. Like one of the ladies said earlier, the steak covers more than one meal. half of a steak will feed me and my daughter, the other half will make a soup or stew that will last another 2 or 3 meals. Its hard. When the judge disabled me totally she asked me what I really wanted and it was easy to tell her…. I wanted a job! because then I can live me life. Pay my bills on time, and buy groceries without worrying about whether or not I could afford a bagel or not ….. Okay I am off of my soap box

    • Jacqueline
      Posted at 12:27h, 14 April Reply

      THANK YOU so much, Debbie for sharing your story. It’s so important that people hear the personal stories such as your story in order to gain a full understanding. It’s easy to say “don’t let snap people buy seafood (implied: expensive meats)” when you haven’t lived it and don’t fully understand. Most SNAP recipients aren’t buying lobster. And, we haven’t even touched on people with special needs (like your situation) or those with severe allergies. Many blessings to you.

  • Mitch Fagans
    Posted at 13:35h, 14 April Reply

    The best thing I got out of your article was at the end when you said to buy $29 worth of food and donate it to the food bank. I have fed a family on that little amount of money when I had to and stretched every dime and morsel of food. All the rest is common sense and I don’t really care what a millionaire buys or tries to “connect” with the common man for a day or week for publicity. Thank you for a good article.

  • Vickie
    Posted at 14:39h, 14 April Reply

    I am a 56 year old that lives on 744.00 a month…which pay my rent,electric and anything my 163.00 snap benifit doesn’t cover.If I am lucky after the 1st of the month I have about 20.00 left.I am also a diabetic and have to pay for some of my meds.I am suppose to eat a certain way and that is just not possible for me to do thus I can’t control my sugar as well as I should be able too.Now the states are trying to remove steak and seafood from snap.I am also allergic to chicken so I am very limited in what meat I can eat.I can not work as I have other medical issues so I am stuck on this for the rest of my life.Some people make you feel less than human when they see your snap card and the embarresment is awful.I do wish that there was a solution but I just don’t see one in the near future.Thanks for posting this article.

  • mariewikle
    Posted at 15:12h, 14 April Reply

    I completely LOVE you!


  • Stacey
    Posted at 17:45h, 14 April Reply

    Very true! It’s great that she eats super healthy and organic, but the reality is that those on SNAP just can’t do that. I was shopping at Walmart a couple of weeks ago and they had super cheap TV dinners on sale for like $.88. We have loads of allergies so I don’t normally look at them but I was thinking about those meals when I saw the article about her $29 cart. If I had to choose between her amount of food that wouldn’t get me through the week and 30 TV dinners, you can guess what I would choose.

    • Jacqueline
      Posted at 19:24h, 18 April Reply

      I was wondering how those families with allergies deals with buying on SNAP because I know sometimes that can add an additional layer of expenses/higher costs 🙁

  • Keri Jahnke
    Posted at 20:00h, 14 April Reply

    I only get $10 a month for my family of 4 my girls are 4 & 3 nd we rely on our food pantry cause $10 does not buy anything 🙁

    • Jacqueline
      Posted at 19:22h, 18 April Reply

      That’s CRAZY, Keri. What state is that?

  • Detra H
    Posted at 20:25h, 14 April Reply

    Great article and I get the point of it, however, my basket usually does not contain processed white bread and the other stuff like canned foods like those posted
    in the second photo. I am a family of four and eat like the first photo…I should do a challenge on how a family of four can eat healthy and make it last.

    • Jacqueline
      Posted at 19:19h, 18 April Reply

      Thanks for the input, Detra. Do you buy on SNAP? We would love to have you share how you use your benefits and eat healthy (while stretching). Let us know if you would like to write a post for our site. We would love to have it! It would benefit our audience, for sure.

  • Cathy Nulliner
    Posted at 20:34h, 16 April Reply

    Gwenyth quit. She quit the challenge. Quit. How nice for her that she has that option.

    • Jacqueline
      Posted at 19:23h, 18 April Reply

      Yeah, it’s an eye opener for sure that most of us can just choose to live that way (or not).

  • Cathy Nulliner
    Posted at 20:35h, 16 April Reply

    Gwyneth quit. She quit the challenge. Quit! How nice for her that she has that option…..

  • ericax235
    Posted at 23:18h, 17 April Reply

    I live in Alaska. My husband lost his job last September and I had to apply for assistance. We now receive $400 a month for our family of three. I’m glad SNAP was there when we went through the hardest winter of our life. We both are working now. We are eligible to receive SNAP until September and will continue to use our benefits to help us pay off some bills. It’s been difficult but I am glad it was there when we needed it.

    • Jacqueline
      Posted at 19:23h, 18 April Reply

      Many blessings for you and your family Erica! <3

  • The Britt McHenry Effect and Judging | Monkey Do Project, Inc.
    Posted at 23:34h, 18 April Reply

    […] Wow. It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for celebrities in the news and how it affects the work we do. […]

We'd love to hear from you! Leave a comment now!