Did Newark Mayor Cory Booker Really *Try* With His Food Stamp Challenge?

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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Sally said...

I suspect that Corey Booker thought exactly like you did: he's an intelligent, well-educated man who ought to be able to plan meals, shop wisely and cook for $30/week. And you're partly right. He should be able to do it.

Meal planning, shopping wisely and cooking are learned skills. You and many others have spent lots of time and effort learning these skills. Corey Booker obviously has not -- at least not yet.

Once you have the skills and knowledge, it's not as difficult. If you don't have the skills and knowledge, it can be very difficult!

Many of the people who are struggling to feed their families on $30/person/week haven't learned those skills either. They need to be able to take the principles that you and others write about and translate them into a plan that works for them.

Unfortunately, as lessisenough wrote in The Point, there's no one strategy that will work for everyone. What is simple for one may not be simple for others.

Anonymous said...

Great post Dan. I fully agree. Too bad most of our politicians have no courage. Which is why I like Chris Christie so much. Maybe you could get your Two People, $35 post published in one of those NY metro papers....."Hey Mayor Cory, try this!"

Daniel said...

I hear you, and you're most likely right.

But is "he didn't know how" an acceptable reason/excuse for talented, intelligent leaders who set an example for the rest of us?

My main issue here is that sucking at a food stamp challenge manufactures false proof that eating well costs too much and is too hard. Cory Booker is a capable leader from what I can tell. But in this instance, he had an opportunity to teach--and he taught the exact wrong thing.


Owlhaven said...

I could go on and on here-- but my main thought is this: I wish more people understood that it is truly possible to eat well on a budget. My food budget is $25/person/week and we eat well. Yes, it's a learned skill that takes time to master, but it's WORTH learning. Get a handle on your food bill and for the rest of your eating career you'll have more money for other stuff in life.

Barbara | Creative Culinary said...

I recently participated in a classroom experience with Cooking Matters, a part of Share our Strength. In this instance, the middle school kids were taught how to make muffins and mac and cheese with butternut squash.

I so applaud the effort to show kids and their parents how to make healthy and satisfying meals on a very limited budget. Except it wasn't satisfying at all. The muffins were OK but the mac and cheese was just terrible. Maybe it was the facility where it turned out hard for us to cook in bulk, maybe it was some of the donated foods that I'm not used to (a boxed milk product) but more than anything, it was a complete lack of seasoning. While that's something I perceive as a simple fix; I thought of the cost of spices and have to wonder how many families simply ignore them due to their cost?

Still...the effort to teach kids how to cook and how to cook with healthy alternatives can not be denied. I can't imagine anything that would help further meal planning on a budget than knowing how to cook from scratch.

I plan to keep involved and may even teach a class...it's something many of us could do to further the ability of families to thrive on a budget. It was amazing to me how many of these kids were so excited to be able to learn how to cook and help feed their families. Cory may have blown it; those kids seem destined not to.

Matt @ SpoonMatters said...

Good post, Dan. I especially liked the extra links you provided. Enjoying the lessimore blog post a lot! Thanks for sharing!

chacha1 said...

Happy New Year, Dan. :-)

I read some of the early coverage of Mr. Booker's SNAP challenge and thought it was actually pretty well communicated that he just didn't know how to make the best use of the SNAP.

I'll also say that I don't, personally, think that politicians should be expected to know how to do everything well. He took the challenge on the same basis that real people do: with little notice, little advance planning, and little time to devote to figuring out how to do it "best."

That is to say, someone who is newly eligible for SNAP is probably someone who is riding the ragged edge of holding their life together. Probably NOT someone who is well-versed in both kitchen technique and frugal shopping technique. Part of the poverty mentality, after all, is tunnel vision: doing just what you need to do in order to get through the day, with little thought spared for the future.

I don't think Mr. Booker established that it was impossible to eat well on SNAP. I think he established that SNAP needs to come with some logistical support - i.e., shopping lists, simple recipes, etc.

If it does and he just didn't use these resources, well, that's another story. I haven't read any subsequent coverage. :-)

The whole issue makes me wish we could completely revamp public education in the U.S. to make it focus on citizenship and core competencies (including basic self-sufficiency) instead of on standardized tests.

Sally said...

I read Booker's posts about the SNAP challenge at LinkedIn. On the day he started the challenge he wrote, "My goals for the #SNAPChallenge 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.

It appears it was never his goal to show that it could be done well, which is too bad. Maybe someone should challenge him to do that (and offer to help?).

I agree with chacha1, especially that SNAP recipients should receive some logistical support. I don't know if they receive this kind of support.

I do know that the USDA has published Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals. However, it's based on nutrition info that's nearly 20 years old and assumes that one wants to follow the standard American diet. It wouldn't have been too helpful to Booker, who is, I believe, a vegetarian. There's one vegetarian main dish which features potatoes.

Brittany said...

I think other commentators makes some good points--that these kind of "failed" challenges show the need for logistical support of SNAP recipients. It's an extension of the whole healthy-cheap-fast debate. It's very hard to do all three, especially without a lot of advanced skills and knowledge. And in my experience growing up on food benefits and then working in low-income communities once I got out, if there is one thing struggling folks have less of than money, it's time--time to cook, time to research healthy/fast/cheap cooking, time to develop the skills with no support. The WIC (women, infants, and children) food assistance program my family was on required monthly classes as a condition/perk of benefits, although they were mostly on parenting, budgeting, etc. I think SNAP could use a similar program, but focused on cheap/healthy/fast cooking.

But I get where you're coming from, Daniel. In Australia, there's currently this big kerfulffle because the head of the department of family affairs just said that she could easily live on the $35/day unemployment benefit (dole) (in response to hundreds of thousands of single moms getting kicked off the higher parenting benefit onto the lower dole). It was not the height of class nor empathy, nor good politics.

However, I think a successful dole or SNAP challenge could be done by a politician, if it was messaged as, "I managed it, but just barely, and only because I had all of these other resources and skills and supports. I thereby propose we have these kinds of supports for people in these programs." sort of way.

Daniel said...

Agreed, these are excellent comments.

Also, Brittany, interesting comment about the Australian official. It ties in well to our discussion on how to do a competent SNAP challenge, mainly because the "you're not showing sufficient empathy" reaction tends to shame and silence the very people who are showing others how it can be done. If we as a society want more people to teach and share basic principles of healthy, low-cost eating, this clearly isn't the way to go about it.

Again, thanks to everyone for the healthy and civil discussion.