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Gwyneth Paltrow's $29 food stamp budget: Do celebrity challenges work?

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(Read caption) Actress Gwyneth Paltrow, wearing a custom Ralph & Russo pink one sleeve gown with a giant flower on the shoulder, arrives at the 87th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California Feb. 22. The "Iron Man" star faces social media backlash after she agreed to slash her food budget to raise awareness for hunger.

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Social media has again lashed out at Gwyneth Paltrow, this time because she agreed to take part in The Food Bank for New York City challenge to live on a $29 grocery budget for a week.

The challenge, which celebrity chef and Food Bank board member Mario Batali announced April 3, seeks to raise awareness of the plight of nearly 47 million Americans who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) aka food stamps.

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But after the “Iron Man” star posted a photo of her haul – which included whole grain brown rice, cilantro, kale, limes, and eggs – critics questioned her sincerity, accusing her of mocking the real experience of hunger.

The backlash raises questions about how effective such challenges are in closing the understanding gap that exists around important issues. Can someone like Ms. Paltrow, who made about $19 million in 2014 alone, really help raise public awareness about poverty? Yet the resulting social media frenzy also highlights how, even amid criticism, real discussion about a persistent problem can take place.

Celebrity challenges to raise awareness and funds for an issue is nothing new. Last summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge, for instance, had everyone from Justin Timberlake to Ethel Kennedy dousing themselves with freezing water to bring attention to ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The challenge gave nominated people a choice between donating $100 to an ALS charity or filming themselves dumping a bucket of ice water on their own heads. Critics called the idea, which resulted in what could be seen as an online equivalent of a wet-T-shirt contest, as self-serving and shallow.

But the challenge also worked: Between July 29 and Aug. 12 last year, The ALS Association and its 38 chapters received about $4 million in donations, compared to about $1.1 million during the same period in 2013. Awareness rose too, as the association saw 70,000 new donors.

“While the monetary donations are absolutely incredible, the visibility that this disease is getting as a result of the challenge is truly invaluable,” Barbara Newhouse, the association’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “People who have never before heard of ALS are now engaged in the fight to find treatments and a cure for ALS.”

Two years ago, in a precursor to Paltrow’s challenge today, then-mayor Cory Booker of Newark, N.J. also decided to live off a food stamp budget for a week. His project, covered by cable networks and discussed online, led to national conversations about poverty and government-assisted nutrition programs.

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But as the publicity wound down, Mr. Booker, now a US senator, found himself criticized by those who couldn’t simply move on to the next big issue.

“I can’t live without food stamps for a week,” one Newark native told NJ.com. “If not, we’d be starving here.”

The same can be said for Paltrow’s much-maligned effort: The Food Bank challenge may raise public awareness, and maybe even funds. (Similar to the Ice Bucket Challenge, food bank nominees can choose between participating in the week-long exercise or giving a donation.) But that doesn’t change the fact that the actress can go back to her juice cleanses and $295 cookbook sets next week.

“Paltrow ... re-ignited conversations about the stigma of using SNAP benefits, the rising cost of food, and the notion of living off of a week’s worth of food stamps,” Annabelle Bamforth, editor-in-chief at BenSwann.com, wrote in an op-ed for the site.

“The [challenge] has certainly achieved its goal of raising awareness about poverty in the United States,” Ms. Bamforth added, “but it remains impossible for celebrities to accurately portray what it actually looks like.”