Cory Booker’s week on food stamps: political ambition amid the burned sweet potatoes

Cory Booker has been known to run into burning buildings to save his constituents. But last Thursday, the Newark, N.J., mayor's biggest challenge was whether or not he could get through a single meeting without taking a nibble of one Christmas cookie.

Booker, 43, and a rising star Democrat, has been living on just $33 of food over the last week as part of an effort to understand the plight of Americans who struggle to live on food stamps. The experiment ends Tuesday.

Booker has said he's trying to raise public awareness about the struggles of average Americans amid threats of federal funding cuts to food stamp programs around the nation. But the mayor's very public campaign comes as Booker mulls a challenge to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in next year's gubernatorial race.

"I am absolutely considering running for governor, as well as giving other options some consideration." Booker told CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday, adding that he'll make a decision in the next two weeks. He may also run for the U.S. Senate seat expected to be vacated by Democrat Frank Lautenberg in 2014.

In an interview with CNN on Monday, Booker said Christie isn't cruising to re-election despite polls showing a big spike in the Republican governor's popularity for his handling of Superstorm Sandy. Booker has worked closely with Christie in the storm's aftermath.

"Christie is vulnerable, as it should be, because there's a lot of issues in the state he's not falling in line with," Booker told CNN. "From women's issues, environmental issues, from really going in a balanced way."

Groups lobbying to protect and expand the food stamp program have praised Booker's attempt to raise awareness about the millions of Americans who struggle to survive under SNAP. But some have accused the mayor of using the experiment to simply gain more publicity for his own political ambitions.

"Food stamps are meant to be supplemental income, not ones ENTIRE income. So this challenge is bunk," a Twitter user named Samuel said in a message to Booker last week, per the Star Ledger. The paper ran an online poll last week asking readers to weigh in on whether Booker's food stamp experience was a publicity stunt.

Booker thrives on media attention. In his six years at the helm in Newark, Booker has earned the nickname "Super Mayor" for feats that have landed him in the national spotlight.

Last April, the two-term Democrat made headlines around the country when he rushed into a burning home and saved his neighbor from a fire. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, he became something of a one-man disaster relief crew, allowing residents displaced by the storm to sleep at his home. In 2010, Booker helped rescue constituents who appealed to him via Twitter in the aftermath of a deadly blizzard. And just last week, the mayor rushed to the aid of victims of a car crash and directed traffic around the accident until police arrived on the scene.

The mayor has received even more attention for his attempt to complete the SNAP challenge.

According to a spokesman, Booker's office was overwhelmed by media requests, including from Yahoo News, to talk to the mayor. As of last Thursday, more than 140 reporters from around the world, including Russia, had filed requests to talk to Booker—with most denied.

Instead, Booker, more confessional on social media than other public officials, has used Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram to chronicle his effort, which began after he got into a Nov. 18 Twitter debate with a Twitter follower who questioned the government's role in nutrition assistance. Booker challenged the user, @MWadeNC, to join him in living on food stamps for a week.

Booker's experiment, launched Dec. 4, got off to a rocky start when he spent most of his $33 budget on several cans of beans, a large bottle of olive oil, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes and bags of salad. Posting a picture of his food for the week on Instagram, he admitted he could have spent his money better.

"I am regretting not thinking through some of my food choices for the week. In hindsight, investing more of my SNAP budget in eggs, and perhaps some coffee might have helped me later in the week. I am growing concerned about running out of food before this is over--especially as I try to resist the urge now to have another sweet potato before I go to bed tonight," Booker wrote on LinkedIn.

Throughout the week, Booker has written about his empty stomach. On his third day, he opted to eat his dinner of peas, black beans, cauliflower and broccoli in small bites late in the day to "allay some of his hunger pains." Over the weekend, as his food supply dwindled, Booker lamented accidentally burning one of his last sweet potatoes—making an already meal even smaller.

But the bakery visit, Booker wrote, was the "greatest test of my resolve yet." Taking to Twitter ahead of an unspecified meeting at the establishment, Booker communicated his dread to his more than 1.3 million followers.

"My bakery prayer: 'Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil," Booker said in a message on Twitter.

Booker survived the bakery—barely.

"After the meeting I hustled back to my car and downed more beans, cauliflower and broccoli and tried to imagine that it was Christmas cookies and cake," Booker wrote in his food diary afterwards.

Booker also made it through a fundraising gala at Cipriani in New York City, where, as the night's keynote speaker, he skipped a cocktail hour and had waiters remove his dinner, which included a goat cheese salad, steak and potatoes.

The self-described caffeine addict has also turned away cups of coffee, and has been skipping his usual fix of Diet Pepsi. Booker wrote in a LinkedIn diary that his week without coffee was the "first time" he could remember going without caffeine and apologized for being cranky.

"No coffee makes me grumpy," the mayor tweeted.

Booker isn't the first public official to attempt to live on food stamps for a week—Mayors Michael Nutter of Philadelphia and Carolyn Goodman of Las Vegas are among scores of politicos who have taken the SNAP challenge. The program is facing potential cuts as Congress debates how to rein in the nation's growing federal deficit.

But unlike Booker, those officials weren't on the brink of a potentially major political campaign sure to generate national attention. Booker has insisted he is simply focused on bringing attention to the importance of food stamp programs and their impact on the country amid threats of dangerous cuts.

On Sunday, Booker told CBS that the deprivation had been a "terrible state of human existence" but that it had been just a fleeting moment for him and a "daily reality" for others.

"I'll be honest with you. I take so much for granted, even going to Starbucks and buying a cup of coffee is more than my daily food allowance right now. And so we really need to expose the problems on a national level by denigrating programs that actually empower our economy in the long run," Booker said.