When a politician does a food stamp challenge, should he do it well? Does he have an obligation to show people how to do it competently?
Or is there a higher obligation... to do it incompetently?
Readers, I'm talking about Newark mayor Cory Booker, who just completed the most publicized celebrity food stamp challenge of 2012. Mayor Booker spent one full week eating on a food stamp budget, blogging and tweeting as he went. And the New York metro area media literally ate it up, giving him--and this issue--tons of free publicity.
But here's the thing. Like nearly everyone on the growing list of politicians and celebrities doing food stamp challenges these days, he sucked. He burned his food, he ate really boring meals, he shopped badly. Heck, he appears to have no clue how to cook.
Except that Booker runs Newark, New Jersey, a city with a $700 million annual budget. He went to Stanford undergrad and Yale Law. And Oxford! You're telling me this guy can't figure out how to structure and execute a low-cost weekly meal plan?
Hmmm. Readers, here's where we unearth an ugly truth about every food stamp challenge ever done by every public figure, forever:
Food stamp challenges cannot be done well.
Food stamp challenges must appear incredibly difficult, and good manners (and smart politics) do not allow you to make them any other way.
Look, obviously, eating on only $30 a week per person can be difficult. But should it be difficult... for him? Does he have an obligation to do his SNAP challenge well, so that others can learn?
Wrong, wrong, wrong. The purpose of a food stamp challenge isn't to help people learn. In fact, if you do too well on your food stamp challenge, if it seems even remotely close to not difficult, you might appear to downplay the plight of people on food stamps. You'll appear unsympathetic, and you'll be criticized for being privileged and for failing to grasp what it's really like to be poor.
If you're the mayor of an economically-challenged city and someone levels these criticisms at you, your entire career could be at risk. In other words, if you don't show that your food stamp challenge is hard, you lose.
But wait, you're thinking, what's the big deal? So Cory Booker sucked at his SNAP challenge, so what? Isn't it more important to show sympathy and solidarity with those struggling with food insecurity?
There's nothing wrong with sympathy and solidarity. Nothing at all. But it's a gigantic deal that Booker blew it.
To see why, consider an alternate reality where Cory Booker instead nailed his food stamp challenge. What if he showed people exactly how to eat a healthy, delicious and nutritious mix of foods on just $30 a week... or even much less? The advance research is easily available to him (hint, hint), and with his media darling status, he could have taught millions that it can be done--and shown that it's easier and less time consuming than you'd think. And he still would have brought plenty of attention and sympathy to the issue of food insecurity.
Instead, he bungled his food stamp challenge, and therefore created still more "proof" that it's impossible to eat well on very little money.
So, imagine a Newark citizen on a limited budget. Imagine, after Booker's less-than-competent food stamp challenge, what this citizen might think about his or her own food situation: Gosh, if Cory Booker can't figure out how to eat healthy food for less, how will I?
Remember, a lie told often enough becomes the truth.
For Further Reading:
1) Cory Booker's posts on his food stamp challenge at LinkedIn
2) A dollar-a-day food blogger gives advice to Cory Booker
3) Booker Too Honest For His Own Political Future
4) Yes-Butting and You
5) The "It's Too Expensive to Eat Healthy Food" Debate
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