Cory Booker visiting an urban farm in New Jersey in October 2022.
U.S. SENATOR Cory Booker, 53, isn’t the sort of politician who is happy with the status quo. In 2021, he became the first vegan senator to serve on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, which is kind of a big deal when you consider that the committee keeps its eye on the state of factory farming. And last year, from the Fourth of July to Labor Day, Booker sent out a global challenge for people to join him in what he called Sugar Free Summer.
“I was thinking of it more as a personal journey and just seeing what it would be like to live without sugar,” Booker says. That meant cutting out his regular go-to vegan desserts—brownies, cookie-dough ice cream, dark-chocolate peanut-butter cups—but also condiments, dressings, and certain bread products. He even stopped putting Stevia, a zero-calorie substitute sweetener, in his tea.
“The first few weeks of the challenge were a real struggle for me,” Booker says. “I had intense cravings for sugar, especially after a meal or late at night, and had headaches throughout the first few days.” And then there were the headaches of grocery shopping. (Yes, Booker shops for his own groceries.) Even in seemingly healthy products—yogurt, granola, trail mix, “natural” peanut butter—added sugars lurked.
“I knew that added sugars were hidden in almost all packaged foods, but I did not expect to spend so long in the grocery-store aisles scanning ingredient lists,” he says. So he turned more often to foods that didn’t have a label at all: fresh fruits and vegetables.
Booker during a campaign stop in 2006, well before he cut sugar.
“After powering through those first couple weeks, I started to feel phenomenal,” Booker says. “I had more energy. I had no cravings. I didn’t find myself thinking about sugary foods. I felt better.”
And the community Booker formed continued to motivate him. “We ultimately had over 5,000 people sign up online to join the challenge, including many members of my New Jersey community. The people who joined the challenge were really what got me through. I loved hearing the stories from people online who struggled through the first week and then found themselves feeling more energetic for the rest of the challenge,” Booker says. “It was amazing to build a space where I was not alone, where I was learning with others, where I was supported and supporting those around me.”
Through the challenge network, Booker says, he kept hearing the same thing: While there were clear benefits to not eating added sugars, it was hard. “I heard so many stories at the beginning of the challenge about how intense the cravings were, and it helped to know that I wasn’t the only one fantasizing about a pint of Ben and Jerry’s,” he says. Booker received feedback about how grocery trips took twice as long because of all the time spent looking at packaging and ingredient lists. He heard the frustration from people who didn’t understand why dressing for their salad—an allegedly healthy choice—was loaded with added sugars.
Booker at Hawthorne Avenue Urban Farm, New Jersey.
“For everything I learned, everything I felt, I knew I was not alone in this journey and that together we would use the knowledge gained throughout the challenge to advocate for better food policies,” Booker says. “Kids walk into their corner grocery store and find a Twinkie cheaper than an apple.”
And that’s especially true for communities of color.
Black people are twice as likely to die from diabetes as non-Hispanic whites and 40 percent more likely to have high blood pressure, conditions that have both been linked to the intake of added sugars. “We have to create systems in which we are supporting the foods that make us healthy and stop making easy, cheap, and convenient foods that are making us sick,” Booker says. One change he has been advocating for: bringing supermarkets that carry fresh produce at affordable prices into low-income minority neighborhoods.
“There’s not as much written about how the kind of food injustice within
inner-city communities, low-income communities, Black and brown communities, is really undermining the well-being and potential of communities and families,” he says. “That’s not a moral condition. That is a policy result.”
Booker says he’s still fighting for new policies that combat healthy-food inequities. He’s also still vegan, still reading ingredient lists, and still motivated by the outpouring of people he’s met who are equally ready to make life changes.
That said, it’s tough for him to pass up an occasional vegan dessert. He is human, after all.
A version of this article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Men’s Health.
Maya Richard-Craven is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who has written for USA TODAY, The Boston Globe, British Vogue, and other publications; she is currently an editorial fellow at Sierra Magazine.