Cory Booker, the charismatic mayor of Newark, will be taking his support of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps”) to new levels in the coming weeks. The mayor will attempt to eat on the cost of the average SNAP benefit in New Jersey: about $4.75 per day.
The mayor says he hopes the challenge will dispel stereotypes about SNAP and help “us to grow in compassion and understanding.”
Nationally, more than 47 million people receive food assistance, a number that has increased dramatically during the recession. Yet despite the increased need, food stamps are again on the budget chopping block. The U.S. currently spends around $78 billion on the nutrition program, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Senate has already approved a $4.5 billion cut to SNAP over 10 years. This cut alone could directly result in two to three million Americans losing their food assistance entirely, and 300,000 children being dropped from the free school meal program. The House has proposed even deeper cuts: a $16 billion reduction over the same period. According to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, this change could reduce the number of SNAP recipients by about 1.8 million each year.
Fiscal conservatives, many of whom are leading the charge to cut the SNAP program, have argued vehemently in recent years that it is not the government’s responsibility to safeguard Americans’ nutrition. This was the crux of Booker’s foray into the challenge, which began on Twitter (not surprising, given that he is a serial Twitterer and has about 1.3 million followers).
Late on Nov. 18, a woman using the Twitter name TwitWit and handle @MWadeNC tweeted, “nutrition is not the responsibility of the gov’t,” to which Booker replied, “We have a shared responsibility that kids go to school nutritionally ready 2 learn.” After a public back and forth, Booker issued the challenge to TwitWit, who told The Associated Press she is a 39-year-old married mother of two from North Carolina:
TwitWit quickly agreed, but expressed concern over whether the two could agree on the terms of the challenge:
Connecticut's University of Bridgeport, which happens to be holding a “UB SNAP Food Challenge” in December, offered to referee, but in an interview with reporters early this week, Booker said his office had yet to finalize when and how the challenge will take place.
“We're going to set up the rules,” Booker told reporters. “And that's what we're researching right now. This will not be a gimmick or a stunt.”
Booker, a proponent of a strong SNAP program, is not the first to take the “Food Stamp Challenge,” but he is the latest high-profile participant. Many have done it, including several celebrities, such as Chef Mario Batali. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton took part in a similar challenge, keeping a daily journal on Facebook.
Predictably, the exercise has drawn criticism. “What's this insult to all Americans—those on Food Stamps and those paying for them—all about? Identity politics?” writes Mary Evans at American Thinker. “Is Booker pretending he's one of the 47 million Food Stamp recipients to gin up support in case he runs for governor?”
But stunt or not, going on food stamps is likely to add to Booker’s legend and further endear the mayor to New Jersey residents. He once went on a 10-day outdoor hunger strike to bring attention to the dangers of open-air drug dealing. On Twitter, Booker is accessible and generous, recently offering to personally call a girl working on a paper about him and a couple of transgender persons who were “nervous about moving to Newark.”
And in April, Booker became an Internet meme—in the same vein as Chuck Norris—after he rushed into a burning house next door and carried his sleeping neighbor to safety. Many observers presume Booker will run for New Jersey’s governorship in 2013, challenging the popular incumbent, Chris Christie. Booker has not publicly announced whether or not he will run.
Whether or not he’s hungry for a higher office is yet to be seen. For now, it's hard not to applaud his willingness to take on a challenge to better identify with his less-fortunate constituents.
Do you think participating in the Food Stamp Challenge will help Booker's critic identify more with those who receive the benefit?
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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter