What Cory Booker is learning about food stamps

Newark's mayor laments the difficulty of finding healthy food while on assistance. He's also using the issue to jumpstart a promising political career.

By Jonathan Berr Dec 10, 2012 5:02PM
Newark Mayor Cory Booker in June 2011 ( Jemal Countess/Getty Images)Cory Booker, the telegenic mayor of New Jersey's largest city, is spending a week on food stamps to raise awareness about hunger. His campaign highlights one of the bitterest ironies about the public assistance program: Many of its recipients are overweight.

After nearly a week of eating sweet potatoes and canned beans and vegetables, Booker, who is a vegetarian, said he can't blame someone for buying a treat to break up the diet. People on food stamps "don't always have an abundance of wholesome food available to them and end up consuming many empty calories," he said on his blog.

A study published in 2009 found that the average user of food stamps, known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), had a body mass index 1.15 points higher than non-users, according to Science Daily.   

Why this happens is not clear. Maybe it's because high-calorie foods with little nutritional value tend to be cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables. Scientists have also found what they call "food deserts" -- defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as "areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet." Another study published earlier this year, however, questioned the idea of "food deserts" found that residents of poor neighborhoods have plenty of opportunities to purchase healthy foods.

In a series of YouTube videos and blog posts, Booker has documented his struggles, including the headaches he's sustained from caffeine withdrawal and the challenge of stretching meals because his budget is limited to about $30 per week. He makes some salient points, such as that people on government aid aren't the leeches some critics think.  In fact, many SNAP users work or are members of the U.S. military.

"Literally hundreds of people this week have reached out to help me, offered me tips, assistance and many have offered me free food, not understanding the rules say I can't accept it," wrote Booker, the mayor of Newark, on his blog, where he lamented having accidentally burned a sweet potato. "There is such good will. "

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, dismisses Booker's challenge as a "carnival sideshow" and argues that if Booker were on public assistance that his benefit would be closer to $40 a month. In fact, the USDA's Thirfty Food Plan, which is the basis for how SNAP benefits are calculated, pegs the monthly food cost for a man Booker's age at $41.70.

SNAP no doubt prevents many people, such as young children, from starving. Unfortunately,  it's also very expensive.

Data cited by CNN shows that spending on food stamps more than doubled between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2011 to more than $75 billion. One reason for the increase was a decision by the Obama administration to suspend the program's work requirements, according to the Heritage Foundation. This has lead to a doubling of food stamps use among the able-bodied population. Moreover, having money in the bank does not affect eligibility for the program, Rector says.

"In many states, you can have a million dollars in the bank and still be eligible for food stamps," Rector said, adding that "there are very few people who just get food stamps."

Democrats and Republicans are trying to reform entitlements as a part of the fiscal cliff negotiations. Whether they will be successful remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: Booker won't be done discussing the issue when his challenge is over. Over the weekend, media reports said he was considering challenging New Jersey's tart-tongued Republican governor, Chris Christie, next year. He also may run for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by 88-year-old Democratic incumbent Frank Lautenberg.

One reason why Booker has many career options available is his adroit use of social media, as evidenced by the food stamp challenge, which was sparked by a conversation he had on Twitter.

"Booker's use of social media cannot be seen in isolation," writes Ben Dworkin, director, Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, in an email.  "It is part of a larger brand-building enterprise that makes him one of the most widely-known mayors in the country. . .The social media efforts contribute to the selling of the image, but so are his public speeches, television appearances, etc."

His popularity is evident from the 139 media requests for interviews submitted to his office.

--Follow Jonathan Berr on Twitter @jdberr.

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Dec 11, 2012 5:03PM
This entire article is a lie.  I live in a small town, where we all shop at the same stores and eat in the same restaurants.  You see first hand what people are doing with their EBT allowance.  A mother of three,  who is on public assistance, receives $677.00 a month for food., in this state.  The dependent children also  receive free breakfast and lunch at school.  Most of the shopping carts I see that are paid for by EBT are filled with convenience foods, soft drinks, and snacks. Anyone in this state who is on public assistance, has plenty of money available for healthy diets.  The unhealthy diets referenced in this article are by choice, not necessity.   My wife and I eat a balanced diet for less than $250.00 a month.  We sometimes settle for what ever brand is on sale, but we have plenty eat. 
Dec 10, 2012 11:09PM





Dec 11, 2012 7:06PM
Appropriate that a demo would use an entitlement program to JUMPSTART a promising political career. THAT says it ALL.
Dec 11, 2012 6:43PM
Dec 11, 2012 1:11PM

I get $698 from SSI and $119 in food stamps. The last increase from SSI was $21 a month after 2 years of no raise. H&W took away $19 of the food stamps netting me a $2 a month increase for 3 years of cost of living increases.


The reason you see people buying ribs and other expensive food items is many also hit the food banks and then go shopping for the kind of things you don't get from a food bank but how much pasta, beans, refried beans, and rice can you eat? They are all good basic starts to a meal but the rest of the items needed to make a decent meal from them cost.

Dec 11, 2012 10:20PM
This guy is a joke! You CANNOT, after one week, say what he is saying. The "short term" users aren't abusing the system. The "lifers" know how to get more money and how to increase the benefits from this program.  The whole system is corrupt and needs to be shut down and reworked. And to the person who said it is mostly military families using this system I say GOOD FOR THEM. They sure as hell deserve a lot more than that. No problem giving them any thing they want/need! To the "lifers" get a job and quit free loading off those of us who work our butts off supporting your lazy butt!!
Dec 10, 2012 9:20PM
Good will toward a celebrity.  Unheard of.
Dec 11, 2012 12:45AM
Would Gov. Crispy Creme lose or gain weight on the SNAP program?
Dec 11, 2012 12:42AM
And stress and depression makes you gain weight.

"Men are Gaining Weight from Stress due to Finances"

"The primary factor contributing to stress for men is their financial situation, according to a survey by Aviva USA, in collaboration with Mayo Clinic. The survey also shows a strong correlation between high stress levels and dramatic weight gain among U.S. males.

Two out of three men report they are stressed, with financial situation being the top contributing factor for a third of the men surveyed."

by Kadad | July 23, 2012 · 7:27 pm

Dec 29, 2012 2:44AM

For some people, food stamps are  the only way to get food. I know a family with a full time working parent and a part time parent and four kids. Some months they have two dollars in the bank by the end of the month. There is nothing wrong with healthy food if you know how to cook it. And why care about junk food? They have birthday parties and what if they want a treat or two, is there anything wrong with that? School food is a whole lot unhealthier than what some people can cook.

Dec 11, 2012 9:38PM
PPL  complain about the poor on food stamps saying it is costing tax payers too much money, but I like to think that whatever it cost me in taxes to make sure some child, elderly person or working family have food to eat, even if it is considered junk food, since yes some of us in life, like children, want the same stuff that the other kids have, a bag of chips, a soda pop, a candy bar, because lets face it kids do like to fit in even if they are poor! n the 2011 fiscal year, $76.7 billion in food assistance was distributed. Here is the welfare kings in america, not the poor,  counting tax breaks and expenditures, corporations and the rich snuffle up over $400 billion a year--

Because many millionaires and billionaires, it was revealed today, don't pay taxes like you and me:

In fact, many don't pay taxes at all. Now, those familiar with the Mack-truck sized loopholes written into the tax code (example: the wealthy who make their money off capital gains only pay a 15 percent tax rate, if that) shouldn't be surprised.

According to a recently released IRS report (), 1,470 millionaires and billionaires paid zero taxes in 2009.

Dec 11, 2012 12:42AM

Corey Booker is a very interesting Man...


Rick Snyder from Michigan a slime ball, lying, piece of shidt...

Dec 10, 2012 5:57PM
So tomorrow is the official protest over Michigan's deadbeat Congress slapping together a Right to Work piece of shipt legislation that the Governor is already whacking off to sign so he can appease his puppet-master-- DICK DeVos, the inheritor of AMWAY. Yea that's right, the multi-level marketing business that pumps beauty products made in China. Michigan still mainly makes cars and has a massive number of union employees. Without unionization, the likelihood of lesser quality due to suppression of wages and appropriate worker conditions would guarantee a loss of world market share. Figure it out... China doesn't pay well, care much for worker safety or conditions but they do make a really cheap cruddy facsimile of stuff we used to make well-- here in America. There will always be another country willing to suppress a workforce and press it into slave production. The Fate of quality hangs in the lurch. Help us... help Michigan by adding your voice. Our LOUSY Governor is already pushing a bridge project we don't need through and his allowance of fireworks this years caused MASSIVE damage, not to mention those damaged by wearing no helmet on their motorcycle (I know one personally). We aren't interested in New World World. Either you ignore what's happening until it happens to you and there is no one left to stop it... or YOU WAKE UP AND STOP IT before it can spread more. A nation of Order has no Freedom.
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