Mayor Cory Booker Takes On Food Stamp Life

Newark Mayor Cory Booker has taken on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) challenge, during which he will live off the food stamp program for a full week. The challenge requires him to have a budget of only $30 for the entire week, which rounds to about $4.32 a day for food. He is not actually enrolled in the program, but rather living off the budget for that week in order to get a better understanding of what it is like to live off of food assistance and have a better understanding of the SNAP program.

The SNAP program is designed to help low-income households alleviate the burden of not having enough to purchase a necessary to meet their basic food needs at all times.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) between the years of 2008-2010 there was a record amount of 14.5 percent of American households who were food insecure, and required the assistance of programs such as SNAP. It also states that virtually half of SNAP partakers are children, with about 47 percent of them being under the age of 18 years old. The households that have children in them add up to about 71 percent of the participants in the SNAP program, with 51 percent of that being single parent households. The program is designed to help those who are living below the poverty line, and have wages too low to lift them above it. According to Booker’s blog, on which he has been posting his results each day; the idea of taking on the SNAP challenge came from a Twitter conversation. Someone tweeted to him, “Nutrition is not the responsibility of the government”, which, according to Booker, made him think about the many people of his community who are in need of the SNAP program and benefit from it in their everyday lives. After considering his followers’ opinion, Booker suggested that they both live off of the SNAP program budget for a week in order to gain a better personal understanding of the program and the people who live off it.

Booker states in his blog, “My goals for the SNAP Challenge are to raise awareness and understanding of food insecurity; reduce the stigma of SNAP participation; elevate innovative local and national food justice initiatives and food policy; and, amplify compassion for individuals and communities in need of assistance. Over the next seven days, I plan to highlight the voices of people involved in local food policy, the SNAP program, and other related initiatives.”

In his first day’s blog, which he posted on December 4, Booker explains the challenges he already began facing living off the SNAP program. He talks about how he did not plan out enough of how he will eat, or what he will eat throughout the week. With traveling, and still an acting government official, Booker talks about how the first day of the challenge he was unable to eat at all until the end of it. Their needs to be consideration of what places will accept your SNAP dollars and planning of preparation of food.

Perhaps his biggest challenge, however, resulting from his poor planning, was that he was unable to obtain caffeinated drinks. For Booker followers, it is well known that he is a coffee lover. In his first day’s blog, he stated that for the first time that he can remember, he will be starting his days without a cup of coffee.

On his second day, Booker says that he began to feel the full effects of living on a limited food budget. He once again addressed his poor planning of what would have been beneficial for him over the week, never needing to put that much thought into what he was going to have each day. He says in his blog that he is starting to realize the food choices that he takes for granted, as he is unable to put a few dollars into a vending machine for a coffee or soda.

Booker stated, “More than this though, the constrained food options I have for this short week highlight for me (with the hunger pains I felt today between small meals) what many hardworking families have to deal with week after week.” He expresses his concern that he may run out of food before the week is over.

Professor Alan Foster, a Sociology Professor at the University, thinks that is a good thing Booker is doing this. He states, “I think it is helpful for anyone to understand how it is to live on low income, especially for political leaders too. When political leaders do it, it draws attention to something that doesn’t always get much paid to it. Especially in times like these, we need to understand that there are people who are having difficulty surviving.”

To put into perspective of how little he has to manage with a day, Booker would not be able to afford a small side salad from the Student Center here at the University. It would cost him over his full day’s limit.

Kirsten Webb, a junior public relations major said, “It is surprising to hear people live off a budget like this. I think it is a fantastic publicity stunt! He is getting a lot of attention and support for doing this.”

The third day, December 6, was the toughest for Booker. As his schedule gets more intense, he learned from his mistakes and planned ahead preparing his meals for the day. He had to cut back on the amount of food he was taking in per meal, in fear of running out before the week is over. He spreads his meal out over a course of four hours, learning that if he does this it takes away from some of the hunger pains that he started experiencing after just two days of living on SNAP. He explains in his video blog that he had a hard time deciding between what was convenient and healthy.

It keeps getting tougher by the day for Booker, and on his fourth day, he decided he needs to cut back even further on his portion intake. He decided that in order to conserve the amount of food intake that will allow him to last throughout the rest of the week, he must spread out his meals even more, with smaller portion sizes. He spread his dinner of broccoli, cauliflower, black beans, corn casserole, and a sweet potato over the course of five hours ending at around 7 pm.

Dr. Joseph Patten, Chair of the Political Science and Sociology Department at the University, says what Booker is doing is a terrific thing. “It reminds me of when Governor Cody went and spent time in a mental institution in order to see the treatment of their residents. It is good for leaders to have an understanding of institutions and policy.”

Booker expresses his growing understanding as day five came around of his life on SNAP. According to his blog, “This is hard. 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.”

He continued, “Literally hundreds of people this week have reached out to help me, offered me tips, assistance and many offered me free food, not understanding the rules say I can’t accept it. There is such good will. But we must direct it not at a generally well-fed mayor doing a one-week challenge but towards our own communities, neighbors and fellow citizens. We can end food insecurity, we can end food deserts, and we can give every child in this wealthy nation a strong nutritional foundation to achieve their dreams. And those achievements will bear fruit for us all.”

On his sixth day of the SNAP challenge, Booker talks about his diet being the same thing day in and day out. Unable to afford much more than buying in bulk, it tends to lead you to have a standard diet without much variety. He explains his understanding of people buying “junk” even when they are unable to really afford it, because a diet of the same thing over and over again is very tiring and mostly ends up being a diet of “empty calories.”

With only one more day of his participation in his SNAP challenge, Booker is coming out with a greater understanding of the struggles that people ensure when living with food insecurities. He consistently at the end of each blog makes a call to action for more people to start to pay closer attention to programs such as SNAP, especially with the upcoming budget cuts being discussed.

Booker comments, “The SNAP program is at great risk for budget cuts as Washington pares federal spending to avert a year-end fiscal crisis. 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.”

Booker has brought a great amount of awareness to programs such as SNAP, and will continue to work with these programs in order to improve them and help those in need.