The Food Bank for New York City, an organization that provides meals to less fortunate families in New York City and nearby areas, recently began a campaign called #FoodBankNYChallenge that challenges people to live on $29 worth of food for an entire week. The goal is to help people understand how difficult it is for the poverty-stricken or homeless to scrape by on little to no money and collect donations to further efforts to end hunger.
In order to drum up publicity for the challenge, Food Bank called on a handful of celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Sting to get their fans to take part as well. Despite the Food Bank’s best efforts, however, the campaign fell to the wayside when most people started focusing on Paltrow and lambasting her for her bizarre menu choices.
Even if the NYC Challenge had been more publicly recognized, it was doomed to fail, as many of these “challenges” do. The NYC Challenge is not unique in its content or goals; there have been similar initiatives, but all of them end up not achieving much as a result of a handful of structural and circumstantial issues.
Going down the list, the first and most glaring problem with challenges like this is the fact that they’re not actually simulations of what it’s like to be poor. While celebrities and conscientious participants will experience what it’s like to eat very little for a whole week, they still have their houses, cars, phones and all of the other benefits having a healthy amount of disposable income will give a person. Notably, Paltrow tweeted a picture of the pittance of food she was able to afford for $29, displayed elegantly on a white quartz countertop, clearly embracing the soul of the challenge.
The second problem is that campaigns like this end up emphasizing the challenge more than the fundraising and end up raising little to no money. I thought that perhaps the NYC Challenge would be different thanks to its flashy entourage of celebrity spokespeople, but to my surprise, the donations page shows that it has raised exactly $0. I decided to look at websites for things like the SNAP Challenge (another program like the NYC Challenge that is essentially identical in its goals) as well and noticed that donation buttons were usually overshadowed by massive walls of text describing the challenge and its related statistics.
Taking the above into account, the final issue is, then, the fact that participants and bystanders end up feeling sympathy for the poor, but do nothing to help them. This goes in complete contrast to the ambitions of the challenge, which is meant to inspire action (and financial support). However, people are much more inclined to simply reflect on their experiences rather than do anything to help those for whom these circumstances are an everyday struggle and not just a fun week-long facsimile.
Take, for example, the scenario from 2013 where a sizable group of Democratic congressmen decided to take part in the SNAP Challenge. The congressmen quickly discovered that, incredibly, living solely on the modicum of money that SNAP grants you is difficult, and the majority didn’t even get through the whole week. They documented their struggle online for the public to digest.
The result? Nothing. Those with the resources to make a real difference ended up casually conversing about the woeful state of wealth disparity and felt bad for the poor, and then there was radio silence. The congressmen who participated didn’t really do anything beyond tweeting about their experiences, either, although that’s more the fault of Congress being Congress than anything else.
To further exemplify this point, Paltrow herself gave up on the NYC Challenge four days in, giving the explanation that living on $29 a week is “impossible,” yet donated nothing to the cause.
Thus, while the Food Bank for New York City was noble in its goals, it chose one of the worst ways to attempt to achieve them. Attempting to simulate poverty for the affluent doesn’t actually work; while their eyes may be opened by the experience, they end up just laughing about it over a glass of pinot noir at a fancy party and never actually raise a finger to help those in need. While there is a huge network of people who work tirelessly and selflessly to assist the needy, those with the clout to make real, weighty differences are too busy enjoying playing poor to actually contribute and make a change.
Evan Siegel is a first-year literary journalism major. He can be reached at email@example.com.