Newark Mayor to Live on $30 Weekly Grocery Budget as a Food Stamp Experiment

Cory Booker

By Dawn Cranfield

Newark Mayor to Live on $30 Weekly Grocery Budget as a Food Stamp Experiment

Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, started a seven day Food Stamp Challenge yesterday; he will try to live on a $30 grocery budget.  The amount is how much a New Jersey resident who qualifies for the food stamp program, officially known as SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, would receive if they were to receive the supplement weekly.

Booker’s stunt is being praised by supporters as mostly positive; poverty experts and SNAP recipients believe it will bring awareness to what it is like to rely on the government for food.

However, most recipients feel the experiment is too short; Heather Tarrant, a 34-year-old single mother opines, “For a week [Booker] will be fine, but what happens when you run out of salt?”

“Once, she wrote, she was unable to make her daughter macaroni and cheese because she ran out of butter. With five days to go before she received her next round of benefits, ‘I just couldn’t spend the two dollars to get a stick of butter.’” (tv.msnbc.com)

Timothy Smeeding, director of University Madison-Wisconsin’s Institute for Research on Poverty, also considers the weeklong challenge to be too short, stating “food flies off the shelves for the first two weeks of the month. But then the food stamps are gone—$300 worth of stamps are gone.” As a result, “in the last two weeks of the month, business picks up at food pantries and soup kitchens.” (tv.msnbc.com)

I read through many of the comments responding to the experiment and, while I feel he is certainly highlighting a topic needing more scrutiny; I concur living on $30 for a week will not be enough.  However, the SNAP program was not meant as an entire food budget for the month for most; it is merely a subsidy, participants’ are expected to include some of their own money when purchasing groceries.  The very name of the program, “Supplemental”, signifies it as such.  So, if Booker wanted to experience it properly, he could actually add some of his own cash to the kitty and purchase some more groceries.

Even though many commended Booker’s efforts, I read just as many exchanges complaining about the lack of funding for the SNAP program.  As of FY 2011, there were 21,072,113 households participating in the program, with an average monthly benefit of $283.99.   I did the math, that is $5,984,269.38 a month, every month; and it increases with each layoff, each disaster, and each family crisis.  Almost $6 million, I cannot imagine there is more to give.

So, what is the answer?  Don’t go looking to the USDA to limit participants’ to buying only nutritious foods; we have all been incensed over watching somebody purchase sugary sodas and chips on food stamps.  According to the USDA website, “No clear standards exist for defining foods as good or bad, or healthy or not healthy.”  (fns.usda.gov)

I am not a nutritionist, but it is fairly easy to determine a “bad” food versus a “good” food; chips, soda, and candy, all on the bad for you list, meaning they are not nutritious enough to be mandatory when you do not have enough money for a proper diet; fruits, vegetables, and beans, all on the other side of the list.  The report from the USDA goes on to explain how challenging it would be to prevent participants from purchasing such “bad” food items, and restrictions would increase the likelihood of compliance violations. Interesting; I am confused about why we should care if somebody is violating a program where they are receiving assistance from the government, which is to say the people.  We are the government.

The allowable food choices on the SNAP program were shocking to me as well; I have long since known soda, chips, and cookies could be purchased.   I used to drive a distant relative to the grocery store, mouth agog as she loaded her cart with sugary and salty snacks, only to put the milk back when she arrived at the check stand and she did not have enough food stamps.  I would stand next to her, my cart filled with beans, yogurt, fruits, and vegetables; working hard to stay within my meager budget. But, I digress…

Energy drinks.  Those uber-expensive, terrible for your heart and teeth, and bad for teens everywhere, but you see people walking down the street sucking them down while chain smoking cigarettes; on SNAP and have an addiction to them?  That’s okay, because as long as they have a nutritional label, you can purchase them.  Or, let’s just say, the government will.  We, the people.  (fns.usda.gov)

http://tv.msnbc.com/2012/12/05/cory-bookers-food-stamp-challenge-stunt-or-learning-experience/

http://www.fns.usda.gov/ora/menu/Published/snap/FILES/ProgramOperations/FSPFoodRestrictions.pdf

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2012/12/04/booker-food-stamps-newark/1745451/

http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/retailers/eligible.htm

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