New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker: Humbled After A Week On Food Stamps


Last week, I wrote an article about Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker’s SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge after a Twitter discussion was prompted when he quoted Plutarch, the Greek historian:

“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”

The discussion was started with a 39-year-old North Carolina woman who is married with two children. The woman argued that ”nutrition is not the responsibility of the government.” He then suggested that she and he accept the SNAP Challenge together.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, has provided the 43-year-old mayor with $33.00 (a few dollars more than I initially reported) for one week of food stamps, the average amount received by an individual food stamp recipient in New Jersey. Eating on $4.32 per day would be a challenge to almost anyone.

His SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge ended yesterday.The rules of the challenge were strict: 7 days, $33 in food stamps, no hand-outs from anyone, and no eating at work-related functions, including dining out.

After his first grocery shopping venture, he realized the gravity of his situation. He had initially thought he’d simply buy less food than he normally would, but he quickly realized that it wasn’t that simple. He chronicled his challenge on social media sites, and admitted on LinkedIn that he didn’t make the best choices.

He carelessly spent most of his $33 on the first day. The mayor is a vegetarian and he bought canned beans, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, salad, and a bottle of olive oil. Come on, Mayor, we know that olive oil is heart healthy but eating healthily is a bit more expensive than eating cheap…poor folks can’t buy olive oil!

“I am regretting not thinking through some of my food choices for the week. In hindsight, investing more of my SNAP budget in eggs, and perhaps some coffee might have helped me later in the week. I am growing concerned about running out of food before this is over — especially as I try to resist the urge now to have another sweet potato before I go to bed tonight.”

As he went through the week, he grew hungry and he was going through his food supply more quickly than he had realized he would. The cost of that olive oil would have bought week’s worth of ramen noodles, Mayor.

He ate a dinner of peas, black beans, cauliflower, and broccoli one night, eating the broccoli in small pieces to make it last longer. When the weekend came, he burned one of his sweet potatoes and that depleted his pantry. He hit a point so low that he seriously considered preparing a meal out of mayonnaise and salsa. Towards the end of his week, he quipped:

“If I run out of money at the end of the week, I can just mix some salsa, mustard and mayo together,” he said. “Have a really nice soup.”

On Sunday morning, he ate the burned sweet potato for breakfast.

“This is hard,” he wrote on his LinkedIn blog. “But what has me profoundly humbled is that this is a week – just a week – and then I’m done and can (and will) throw out burned food. But millions of Americans are living with food insecurity, with worry and concern about affording food – healthy, decent food for their families and children.”

During the week, he had a meeting in a bakery, and tweeted:

“I have a meeting now, IN A BAKERY. UGH.”

Later he tweeted:

My bakery prayer: “Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.”

He returned to his car and wolfed down cauliflower and dried beans, trying not to think of cookies and cake.

He also had to sit through a fundraising gala at the Tony Cipriani in New York. The menu featured goat cheese salad and steak and potatoes. He asked the waiter to remove his plate.

At the end of the week, he had enough food left to prepare a decent meal.

“My last #SNAPChallenge meal: sweet potato and casserole of beans, corn, broccoli, and cauliflower,” he wrote.

Widely known as a caffeine junkie, his biggest challenge was withdrawal from Pepsi and coffee, which were definitely not in the budget (neither was that olive oil, Mayor).

He took a little heat from politicians and bloggers during the challenge. Many accused him of doing it for political reasons as he considers a run for governor of New Jersey or a Senate spot. He has denied these claims and repeated that he did this to draw attention to the importance of the 415,000 New Jersey families who depend on SNAP for most of their groceries.

Others have said that he was irresponsible and should have used this opportunity to show that food stamps are “supplemental” and not intended to be a family’s only food source. But the reality that wealthy politicians and financially secure upper class don’t get is that after rent, utilities, vehicle or transportation expense, meeting the needs of children, medical expenses, etc…there is little left for food and food stamps often is the only source for food for a family.

Booker says the challenge humbled him and increased his urgency to fight for families and for food subsidies as Congress considers $16 billion in cuts to the SNAP program.

“The SNAP program is at great risk for budget cuts as Washington pares federal spending to avert a year-end fiscal crisis,” Booker wrote in his blog. “These cuts to SNAP funding could mean millions of more Americans – families with children, families with elderly and veterans – will live with less food, less options, and less hope. I’ll be honest with you. I take so much for granted, even going to Starbucks and buying a cup of coffee is more than my daily food allowance right now. And so we really need to expose the problems on a national level by denigrating programs that actually empower our economy in the long run,” Booker told CBS. 

The Challenge received national attention when four members of Congress took the Challenge in 2007. Representatives James McGovern (D-Mass.), Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), and Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) spoke about the difficulty of buying nutritious and healthy foods while remaining within the balance of their food stamp allotments.

To invite your own representatives – local, state, and federal – to accept the SNAP Challenge or become a “Caseworker for a Day,” visit the Food Research and Action Center(FRAC Action Council) website, where a complete tool-kit is available for download.


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