Cory Booker Tries A Food Stamp Budget

Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, New Jersey, is trying to eat for a week on just under $30, which is what the average recipient of food stamps in his town gets as a budget. He’s not doing too well – experiencing between-meals hunger and caffeine withdrawal.

Here’s what he bought with his $30:

Anyone who has ever been on food stamps, or an otherwise tight budget, can tell you where he went wrong: too many foods that are luxuries at that income level and too many brand-name items.

Where are the boxes of cheap mac-n-cheese, tins of store-brand baked beans and the bag of white long-grain rice or bag of the cheapest potatoes available on the shelf? Where’s the cheap block of cheese and the milk, along with some corn starch – combined into a sauce to make a little flavor for that rice or potato? Where’s the peanut butter, grape jelly and cheap store-brand white bread? Dude, I can feed a family of five on a budget of $7 a day that way – I know, because I’ve done it. I’m grateful every day that I no longer have to.

Look, Mayor – an apple is a luxury when you’re poor. You get one as a treat, and only in the second week if you somehow manage to have some food left over at the end of the first. Salad is right out. The name of the game is carbs – they fill you up and give you enough energy to get you through the hard working day – not sensible nutrition. You can worry about vitamins and stuff like that when you’re no longer worried about your kids going to bed hungry, if you tie down every stray expense, work like you’ll drop dead next month (for year after year) and if the Gods decide to grant you that nirvana one day.

Mayor Booker gets to go back to his usual food next week. He’ll be somewhat wiser about the plight of his poorest constituents, but will still only have a vague idea of what it is to be poor for a protracted period.

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

13 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Sorry, but I think both of you are a bit off the mark here. What he’s got is not entirely wrongheaded – looks like a heavy leavening of vegetable protein rather than animal. The problem with what he’s selected near as I can see is that it’s all canned. Almost anything along the lines of what he looks to have picked (various legumes) is significantly cheaper dried than canned. One pays a lot for shelf-stable convenience – same for paying someone else to clean, shred and bag one’s lettuce.

    Along those same lines, the name of the game is ditching anything that’s been processed. Bread that someone else baked? Jam that someone else canned? If you want cheap, you do all the value add stuff yourself. My experience has overwhelmingly been that fresh is unaffordable only if one has crowded it out with processed foodlike substances.

    I spent a pretty decent chunk of my life long ago needing to have food be not just cheap, but also light, compact (i.e., energy dense) and environmentally stable. I didn’t quite get to the stage of the more maniacal NOLS people, bit it was really amazing what one could do by stopping being a consumer of food products and actually understanding the basics of food.

    • Great, JPD – but “If you want cheap, you do all the value add stuff yourself” may not always work when you’re working two jobs just to keep the lights on and the rent paid. Although the great thing about doing your own baking when you’re poor in the winter is that you also heat the house – that’s not always a great budget idea in Texas in summertime, say. Booker’s just seeing a thin slice of the probelms poverty brings.

      • Sorry but I have spent *way* too much time working with frontline poverty orgs to swallow explanation that relies solely on environmental externals. Are there folks out there that really can’t find the time – absolutely. But it ain’t the vast majority and it just ain’t a primary driver. Vast majority of households reporting no time for this sort of thing, you really dig into it – it’s time spent on other things crowding it out and lack of “imagination” as to better alternatives, for lack of a better description. Most everybody will *tell* you they don’t have time, but you really break it down into the brass tacks of time use analysis and it doesn’t hold as strongly as the assertion. Conditioning folks to food as product – which not incidentally sells hard on convenience and time saving – is big business and it’s pervasive.

        • The same thing applies to driving a car.

          Nowhere is it technically required to have a car to leave your home, but in many places nobody will give you a job if they think you don’t have “reliable transportation”, which is a code term for your own car that they’re not embarrassed to see in the parking lot.

          So in many suburban and exurban places, car ownership is the single biggest surcharge on poor working people, and lack of a car the single biggest built-in inconvenience and time waster.

          Anyway, if your “kitchen” is a hot plate and a bathroom sink down the hall, it’s hard to exploit the cost-effectiveness of making food from scratch. I’d say one of the best tactics for such a situation is make do with foods that cost little, keep well at room temperature, contain plenty of calories, and require minimal preparation, like rice, pasta, ramen, peanuts, and (yes) canned beans. But without veggies or the occasional fresh produce, that sort of diet gets very dismal very quickly.

    • Baking and making jam may be cheap once you have the equipment, a place to store the equipment and jars of jam, and space to work in. Reliable appliances help, too. It does take some capital expenditures that pose problems for people in unstable housing situations.

      Fresh is frequently more expensive than canned. Shelf wastage is figured into the grocery stores’ pricing, and there are significantly more costs to stocking and maintaining the produce section than the canned vegetable section. The fact that potato chips, frozen pizzas, and other processed foodlike substances are horrendously expensive in comparison to what’s in the produce section does not make fresh produce the cheapest food option.

      • There is a capital equipment cost, but for most things it’s pretty small compared to things folks seem to spend money on without blinking. The bigger problem based on what I’ve seen is lack of knowledge. Most folks seem to have no idea how do this stuff anymore. Everyone we’ve taught water bath canning to couldn’t believe how easy it is. Pressure canning, well, you’d swear to god it was alchemy.

        As to the fresh vs. canned pricing, all I can say is y’all must have a different pricing structure. I’ve heard folks say this quite a bit, and it just has not been my experience. Part of it may be that I do most of my “fresh” shopping in greengroceries (i.e., shops that specialize in produce rather than grocery stores that carry the whole spectrum of goods), I don’t know.

        • Yeah – there’s no greengrocers, bakery, butchers or fishmongers in this small town of mine. There are 7/11s, Walmart and HEB, which is another big box grocery store.

          I get your point about how few even know how to cook anymore though. I taught myself during my poorest phase exactly because I realized I could save money and kept the love of cooking as our financial situation improved. I am no longer amazed, however, by how few people even know how to boil an egg, let alone bake bread or make jam.

          • My wife is a reasonably decent cook and a spectacular baker and I do pretty good pies and soups but we never had to go into hardscrabble mode – yet.

            Growing up I was always amazed at the domestic skills of my grandmother. Of course, having to take over running a household at the age of 10 when her mother died (circa 1880) without electricity or running water got her off to a good start. Running a cattle ranch when her husband was paralyzed by a stroke; tending cattle, chickens, hogs; growing garden produce to cover day-to-day expenses as well as feed her family. She had to do things for herself simply because there was no other choice – and a lot of those skills are remarkably rare today, certainly in the under-50 crowd. Since those days, I’ve sometimes lived high on the hog over the last 50 years but I don’t think I ever lived better. And as I approach retirement, I find myself doing more and more for myself and depending less on commercial stuff – and it’s a lot more satisfying.

            JPD is right that ‘no time’ is a lame excuse. Granny kept busy as a one-armed paperhanger but she got it all done. It’s just a question of priorities and being willing to learn.

        • Yesterday in the grocery store:

          Store brand canned green beans: $.77 for a 14 oz. can.
          Fresh green beans: $1.99 lb.

          Canned tomatoes: $1.50 for 28 oz. can.
          Fresh tomatoes: $2.49 lb.

          On the time issue: most of us can do anything. That doesn’t mean we can do everything. But I hear constant preaching about how the poor are at fault for not spending time on financial matters, child care matters, cooking matters — name the problem and it’s their own fault. They should spend every single minute of every single day on improving their lives. I do not regard this as a realistic expectation of other human beings. I’m sure as hell not that good.

          Incidentally, I cook most meals from fresh vegetables (I rarely fix meat at home). I find cooking (and cleaning up afterward, which is part of it) much more time consuming than apparently you-all do. It reassures me that cookbooks define “Almost instant” as a dish that takes less than 20 minutes to prepare.

  • You can also stretch out your monthly food stamp allotment by using a food pantry, if you’re lucky enough to have one near you.

  • Cooking involves a lot more than cooking food and cleaning up after. I’ve read that women start becoming less productive at work after about 3 pm when they are consumed by worrying about/agonizing over what to cook that evening. Asking themselves questions like “Do I have all the ingredients”? If not, “how much time will it take to get what I need”? It’s very time-consuming to shop during rush hour.

    I remember those days when I was a single mother with two young kids, had a boarder, and took courses on top of that. I’d be racing through the grocery store. And I’d swear like a trooper if those bozos (grocery store managers) decided to move things around which meant it would take me that much longer to find the stuff I needed. I bought a mix of canned, frozen, and fresh foods. I considered cooking a huge chore.

    But all that changed when I suffered from severe migraine headaches and the pills I was prescribed caused me to have an allergic reaction of gigantic proportions. For six weeks I experienced extreme pain. I searched for an alternative route to regain my health and found it in Ayurveda. I won’t bother you with the details except to say that for anyone interested in finding out more, “Essential Ayurveda”, by Shubhra Krishan” is the best and most practical introduction to this ancient preventative healing system.

    Since then, my relationship with food has changed. I began to develop a love for food – real food. organic food. Using the Ayurvedic principles in my cooking and a change in lifestyle cured me from the migraine headaches. For a while, I religiously adhered to its teachings. However, now that I’m healthy I’m not so fanatic anymore. I’m strictly vegetarian at home (I do eat fish) but when I eat at a friend’s house or at a restaurant, I will occasionally eat meat.

    The kitchen has become my favorite room in the house. Everyone always knows where to find me. Now I consider cooking an adventure. I love cooking real food. There’s not a can to be found except a can of coconut milk. Leftovers are “a no no” as are frozen foods (except home-made ones) – Ayurveda considers these “dead foods” as the life energy is gone.

    “Real food” does not have to be expensive. Find an organic market. You can buy one or two carrots instead of a bag. Get a pressure cooker and learn how to cook beans – there are so many more varieties of beans than the few canned ones you find in a regular grocery store. Buy a small amount of your favorite spices. Devote part of Sunday to cooking to make it easier for the rest of the week. This is when I will make a bean dish and a soup that I’ll freeze in glass containers. We have home-made soup for lunch every day and a bean dish 2-3x/wk. Indian lima beans (a big hit with everyone) and simple Aduki beans with Shiitaake mushrooms are my favorites. You can leave out the mushrooms if you find them too expensive.

    I splurge on fresh vegetables – three of different colors and steamed to perfection always accompany the beans, wild fish etc.

    Be adventurous in your kitchen, experiment; use the Internet as a resource to find multiple recipes for one particular dish from which you can create your own. There are no rules, no measurements … throw in a bit of this and a bit of that, taste, add a little more if you like but most importantly, have fun. Adapt your dishes to your budget. Discover which dishes taste good and are least expensive.

    Instead of viewing cooking as a chore it has become a pleasurable pastime for me. I envision a time when both men and women undertake this “life-sustaining” activity. What better way after a day’s work than to be in the kitchen with a glass of wine, listening to relaxing music and cooking ‘real’ food together. Now that’s what I call “unwinding”.

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