Actress Gwyneth Paltrow is trying to bring attention to food disparity. But does she know that she could double her SNAP money at farmers markets? REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian

Hidden programs that match dollars spent on fresh food deserve the kind of press that only Goop can deliver.

If Gwyneth Paltrow wants to get the most out of food stamps, she needs to start spending them at farmers markets. Pronto. Otherwise, I'm not sure she's gonna make it. A woman can live on taco nights alone for only so long.

No one needs to tell Paltrow twice to buy healthy fruits and vegetables. She has, after all, leveraged her Hollywood career into a life-coaching platform for guiding people on how to purify their lifestyles. But the food-stamps challenge is more than a matter of eating healthy. Now that she's restricting her diet to what she can buy on food assistance, she's got to spend that money at farmers markets if she means for anyone to really get anything out of this spectacle, herself included.

Call it a wallet cleanse: Paltrow's committed to eating on $29 per week, the same amount afforded to folks through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or food stamps. This particular poverty-tourism stunt got its start as an actual consciousness-raising effort at Food Bank for New York City, but celebrities and politicians of means have been taking the food-stamps challenge for a few years now.

Now, $29 won't even buy a single-day soup cleanse from Soupure ($79)—much less the mini three-day cleanse of "veggie soups, really nourishing bone broths, super hydrating alkaline water drinks, and chilled snacks" that Goop recommends you try right now. Paltrow's first grocery-store run amounted to a Pinterest-ready spread that wouldn't come close to lasting a family seven days.

But let's consciously uncouple our criticism of Goop's first foray into a common supermarket with all the good Paltrow might do with this project. Surely none of Paltrow's well-heeled followers actually require SNAP benefits. That's hardly the point. Rather, it's people in power who can learn from her. Some policymakers must count themselves among Paltrow's Goopies—and it's those people who might get something out of this sort of exercise. Leaders stand to learn the same thing that Paltrow will: Not just that living on a tight budget is hard, but that putting SNAP benefits into the hands of eligible beneficiaries and directing them specifically toward farmers markets is a cost-efficient way for cities to make healthy food affordable.

In Los Angeles, where Paltrow lives, the California Market Match program matches the SNAP benefits that people spend at farmers markets. This helps consumers overcome one of the barriers to healthy food access: cost. As a recent report from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) shows, economic factors like cost are a more stringent barrier to healthy-food access than physical proximity. It's not food deserts that are killing folks, it's high prices.

The same SPUR report shows that cities can bring down those high prices at low cost to themselves. San Francisco, for example, pays for just the administrative costs of the city's SNAP benefits program. The more people it signs up for food assistance—which is at present a low percentage of the people who are in fact eligible—the further the benefits provided through state and federal funds go in San Francisco.

If Paltrow spends $10 in SNAP benefits at participating farmers markets, she gets $10 in matching funds, meaning $20 in food for half the cost. The more that cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco do to expand the number of participating farmers markets (in 2014, there were more than 150), the greater the catchment of SNAP beneficiaries. And the greater the gain for cities: SPUR finds that for every $1 the city puts it, eligible residents receive $25 in state and federal money to spend on food.

These matching-dollars program extend beyond Goop's sunny California environs. Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit organization devoted to expanding access to affordable, healthy foods, launched its double value coupon program in three states in 2008, but has since expanded to participating farmers markets in 31 states and the District of Columbia. The U.S. Department of Agriculture just launched $31.5 million in grants to boosting access to healthy and affordable food through a number of pilot and community projects. Double-Up Food Bucks in Michigan, Market Bucks in Minnesota, Health Bucks in New York—these are just some of the programs out there with similar aims and means.  

Now, only so many leaders who don't already know the value of spending SNAP benefits at farmers markets are going to find out through Goop—assuming she comes to realize this benefit herself. And the chances of that are, unfortunately, low: Paltrow isn't actually on food stamps, she's just restricting her purchases as if she were. And for all sorts of reasons, setting a food budget for $29 a week isn't a close approximation of the experience of food insecurity.

Maybe a better way that leaders could drive the demand for healthy and affordable food is to find a better model to advertise healthy and sustainable living on a budget. The money is out there: Cities and their residents are leaving it on the table. Find a celebrity with some actual cultural inroads to poor communities and put them on a food-assistance stunt. That seems the better way to reach the people for whom this stuff really matters.

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