Why is Newark Mayor Cory Booker living on food stamps?

Mayor Cory Booker says access to food is becoming a 'social-justice issue,' and he wants to raise awareness about how hard it is to live off food stamps – about $30 a week.

Julio Cortez/AP/File
Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker talks to residents waiting in line to get clothing donations at Clinton Hill Community Resource Center in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy last month. Booker announced this week that he's taking a food-stamp challenge.

What does it take to live on a $4-a-day food budget? For Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, it means no morning coffee, at least not for the next week.

Mr. Booker started a weeklong Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) challenge Tuesday, testing his ability to stay within a $30 food budget, roughly equivalent to the average weekly assistance someone in New Jersey gets from food stamps, as SNAP was once called.

His decision to do the SNAP challenge is the result of a debate he had on Twitter about the role of government in supporting nutrition programs. His aim: raising awareness of food security and nutrition issues, especially in low-income urban areas, which are often “food deserts” or areas where there is low access to affordable nutritious food.

“We have much work to do at the local level to address a legacy of structural inequities in the American food system,” Booker wrote in his challenge announcement on LinkedIn. “As more and more working people and families – many holding down more than one job – face greater and greater challenges to juggle housing, medical, and transportation costs, meeting nutritional needs becomes a serious problem and a social justice issue.”

The challenge is another opportunity to grab headlines for a rising star of the Democratic Party who has already begun to make a name for himself nationally.

In April, he was hailed as a hero for rescuing a woman from a burning building. Later, he made a video with Gov. Chris Christie – spoofing "Seinfeld" – that generated national buzz. He even made several national media appearances on behalf of Obama campaign – though he caught some flak from Democrats for criticizing President Obama's attacks on Mitt Romney over Bain Capital. There is speculation that he might run for governor against Mr. Christie in 2013. 

Documenting his challenge on social media, Booker posted a picture of his grocery receipt on Saturday, showing he spent $29.73 on black beans, corn, and apples … but no coffee.

Conservative politicians and advocacy groups often criticize SNAP as a government program exploited by people looking for handouts – a characterization that Booker opposes.

“That’s not what I see on a daily basis as I shop in my low-income community,” Booker said in an interview on waywire.com – a website promoting his SNAP challenge.

Spending for SNAP jumped to $71.8 billion in 2011, up from $30.4 billion in 2007 because more people became eligible for the program due to high unemployment and a weak US economy, reported Reuters.

Data for the 2011 fiscal year show the program provided benefits to 44.7 million people in an average month, up from 25.8 million people in 2007. The federal government spent $75.7 billion for the program – $71.8 billion went to benefits and the rest covered administrative costs. Households received a monthly average of $284, and individuals received $134.  

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) released a poll in September showing that 55 percent of respondents said the government should spend more money to address hunger in the US. Seven percent said cutting the food-stamp program is the wrong way to reduce government spending.

Booker is not the first politician to participate in a food stamp challenge. Fellow mayors who have taken the food stamp challenge include Michael Nutter in Philadelphia, Carolyn Goodman in Las Vegas, and Greg Stanton in Phoenix. In all, four governors, nine city mayors, and about 20 members of Congress have participated in similar challenges, according to FRAC, which provides planning and budgeting materials on its website. 

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