NEWARK — In Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s career of glitzy photo shoots, this was by far the most humble.
He stood in his kitchen Tuesday, glumly assessing the 17 cans of beans, seven yams, two bags of frozen vegetables and two apples that will constitute his diet for the next seven days as he embarked on a week-long effort to shed light on the plight of roughly 46 million Americans who rely on food stamps to survive.
Tuesday was day one. And though the normally caffeinated mayor was trying to be upbeat, the look on his face suggested it’s going to be a long week without his two signature vices: Diet Pepsi and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
He’s already learned a few lessons about shopping on a budget.
"If I could go back and do it over again, I definitely would have gotten a dozen eggs and I would have clipped coupons," he said.
Yet behind the publicity stunt, Booker says, there’s a bigger purpose at hand.
"People have a real lack of understanding of the struggles that many families have to go through — hard working families that play by the rules," Booker said when he first set up the challenge last week. "One of my main goals will be to shine light on programs like this and dispel stereotypes that exist."
Booker spent $29.78 on groceries Tuesday, the average weekly bill of a single person who receives food stamps as part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
For the next seven days, and at a time when Congress is considering $16 billion in cuts to the federal program, Booker will put himself in the same position as 850,000 other New Jerseyans who receive food stamps each month.
Since the Food Research and Action Center, a national advocacy group, began tracking SNAP challenges in 2006, hundreds of mayors, city councilors and advocates for the poor have spent a week living on the equivalent of what they would qualify for in food stamps.
Though Booker is among the most high profile officials to take the challenge, he is not the first in New Jersey. Jennifer Velez, commissioner of the Department of Human Services, took the challenge last year.
"It was a tough week. Not just because of the Food Stamp Challenge but because it was busy and stressful and nearing the holiday, which creates a whole different kind of chaos," Velez wrote in the daily diary of her week. "What I realized ... is that hunger affects everything: energy, patience, mood and sleep."