During a wide-ranging talk Thursday night in Morgantown, W.Va., Newark Mayor Cory Booker said he thought obesity was the leading crisis in America. "Talk in the nation recently has been gun violence," he said to the hundreds gathered. "But what's killing folks in America, one of the leading causes of death, is obesity-related diseases. And not only is that killing us; we are dying as a society. This conversation has to get a little more earnest in our nation." His talk was part of the "Festival of Ideas" lecture series at West Virginia University.
This all comes on the heels of a busy week for obesity, politics and the state of New Jersey. Governor Chris Christie's weight has become a topic of national conversation now that he is widely believed to be seeking higher office in coming years. Earlier in the week, Christie appeared on the "Late Show with David Letterman," where he talked candidly (and often humorously) about his weight issues. On Wednesday, in response to a former White House doctor who said Christie was so obese he could die in office, the governor responded tersely with two words: Shut up. And at a press conference Thursday, Booker announced a new citywide initiative that would give Newark employees discounts to Weight Watchers programs.
Newark has an obesity rate of 26 percent. West Virginia, where Booker gave his speech, has an obesity rate of 32.5 percent, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "I'm a data-driven guy," Booker said. "The obesity rates amongst our children are astonishingly high."
Healthy eating is a passion for the Newark mayor, who is a vegetarian and has publicly battled recent weight gain. At the WVU speech, Booker admitted to "going home at night and having an illicit relationship with these two guys — Ben and Jerry." He nostalgically recalled his more "chiseled" days when he played football at Stanford University. He now serves as vice-chair on first lady Michelle Obama's Partnership for a Healthier America initiative. "The reality of what we consume now is outrageous," he told the crowd at WVU. "Serving sizes that we consume, sugar that's in our diet, corn syrup. We are subsidizing unhealthy foods. We subsidize corn, which is in everything."
Healthy eating is the latest of many passions of Newark's mayor. With more than 1.3 million Twitter followers, Booker has revolutionized modern-day politicking by responding personally to his constituents. (He's even created his own social network, WayWire.) When his city was struck by a major snowstorm, residents tweeted the mayor to come over and shovel their driveway. He offered his home as a shelter after Superstorm Sandy, wrangled truckloads of Hot Pockets for his hungry constituents, rescued a freezing dog, and lived on food stamps for a week in solidarity with New Jersey residents who subsist on little. Not to mention that time he saved a woman from a burning building.
Booker's visit to West Virginia is just the latest stop in what seems like a never-ending national tour. Indeed, it has become a common complaint among some Newark residents that Booker spends too much time being "America's mayor." A Democrat, Booker has indicated he plans to run for the U.S. Senate in 2014. At Thursday night's event, a WVU student echoed many when he said he hopes to see the mayor run for president one day. Booker's response? "I appreciate you saying that. Thank you very much."