Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang sometimes seems more like a walking meme generator than a man trying to become the most powerful person in the world: He jokes that he’s the “Asian Oprah” for his Freedom Dividend proposal, which guarantees a universal basic income of $1,000 a month; he streams videos of himself dancing to Luniz’s “I Got Five on It,” a song about splitting the cost of marijuana; and at a campaign office opening in Manchester, New Hampshire, he sprayed whipped cream into the mouth of a kneeling supporter.
So when I planned to document two days of Yang’s campaign trail eating habits, his staffers weren’t concerned — even after photos of fellow candidate Pete Buttigieg’s particular method of eating a cinnamon roll went viral following my previous campaign embed. “There isn’t going to be a viral moment, because he knows how to eat food,” Yang’s campaign manager Zach Graumann snarked.
Despite the antics, Yang is a serious candidate. The businessman, often described as a millionaire, has a net worth of $1 million according to Forbes, making him in fact less wealthy than all but one of the seven candidates who have qualified for the upcoming primary debate. He will also be the only person of color on stage since California Senator Kamala Harris dropped out of the race earlier this month, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker failed to qualify. (Nine candidates, led by Booker, have signed a petition to expand the qualifying criteria for the debates.) With a $10 million fundraising haul in the third quarter, Yang’s team is beefing up his operations in key early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, hoping to exceed expectations as primary voting begins so that he can catch fire by Super Tuesday, when 14 states will hold presidential nominating contests and 40 percent of the delegates for the Democratic party’s nomination will be decided.
Yang and his supporters, who call themselves the “Yang Gang,” often complain of a lack of media coverage for his candidacy; in the last debate, hosted by MSNBC, he received the least amount of speaking time of the 10 candidates on stage, despite polling better than half of them. To bridge that coverage gap, Yang’s team decided to take its first Iowa bus tour — his 23rd visit to the state — with media in tow. The five-day sprint consisted of bowling, a basketball game, office openings, more serious events like a forum on autism with his wife Evelyn (one of their children is autistic), and only a little bit of malarkey.
Despite making a signature out of his love of turkey legs at the Iowa State Fair, voters who expected Yang to indulge in public performances of wolfing down Iowa’s more visually impressive favorites, like Decorah’s frosted cinnamon rolls and Smitty’s pork tenderloins, as he made his way through the state will be disappointed. “A lot of times we just go to the closest restaurant on Google Maps,” said Erick Sanchez, Yang’s traveling press secretary, who previously worked on Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan’s presidential bid. “Ideally, we’d love to be able to hit a local deli every time we travel but with the schedule we keep, it’s fucking impossible.”
But to focus on meals would be to miss the real story of his campaign diet: Andrew Yang is a supreme snacklord. Costco-sized containers of popcorn pour out of every cabinet of his bus, while the team’s work table is constantly littered with an assortment of chips, jerky, Whole Foods 365 almonds, BarkThins, classic Welch’s fruit snacks, clementines, and Yang’s favorite — the quietly cultish BelVita breakfast biscuit. Every campaign trip to Iowa or New Hampshire starts off with a 30-unit case, and they’re usually gone by the end. “It’s always a good time for BelVita,” said Yang, who ate a package for breakfast one day, then paired it with a cup of pomegranate seeds as an evening snack on another.
During a two-hour span in Dubuque, a city in that sits on the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa, Yang ate package of a BelVita biscuits; munched on bags of Navitas Organics cacao goji “power snacks” and Whole Foods roasted almonds; nibbled on half of a plain doughnut from Dunkin’ during a roundtable discussion with small business owners; and polished off a bag of Skinny Pop butter popcorn while being interviewed by the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel.
On another occasion, during a 30-minute drive from Cedar Falls to Waterloo, Yang finished a package of dark chocolate cocoa “Skinny Dipped” almonds, started on a bag of Tate’s Chocolate Chip cookies, and downed a bottle of water, his preferred beverage, while taking questions from the press. Yang had a new bottle of water in his hand virtually every time he stepped on or off the bus. “It prevents me from getting sick,” Yang said of his disciplined hydration. “Plus, I speak a lot so it helps.” Besides water, Yang only consumes green tea — Honest T is his preferred brand for the road — and the occasional fruit juice; he does not drink alcohol or coffee.
Yang’s ceaseless snacking doesn’t mean that he skips meals, though. On the first day of my embed, he ate what most people would consider to be four separate meals: eggs, sausage, and an acai bowl for breakfast; a turkey sandwich from sub chain Jimmy John’s, delivered to a conference room where the team was filming YouTube content, for lunch; a pepperoni pizza on the way to a town hall event, for dinner; and an Asian salad at Houlihan’s, the casual American bar and restaurant chain, for a second dinner.
Jimmy John’s is the not-so-secret go-to for Iowa political operatives who need to feed hungry staffs: The chain’s sandwiches agree with most palates, there are vegetarian options, and it’s a known quantity with locations across the entire state. “It’s consistent. The bread has a decent chew,” Sanchez, Yang’s press secretary, said. “It’s not Subway, which tastes like licking a subway.“ (The Buttigieg team also told me that Jimmy John’s was a staple, but they ordered from a local sandwich shop when I was embedded with the campaign — optics! — with mixed results.)
While Yang’s campaign trail diet consisted mostly of snacks and practical chain restaurants for the two days I was on the road with him, the last meal on my final day was an iconic diner: Iowa City’s Hamburg Inn No. 2, which has a long history of patronage by ex-presidents and presidential candidates alike, from Ronald Reagan in the early ’90s and Bill Clinton in 2003 to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during their respective campaigns.
Most diner stops on the campaign trail are for the photo op: Often, the food remains untouched. Yang seemed to follow this pattern, greeting supporters and taking selfies with restaurant employees as news crews stood by filming. But after noting that “the food was delicious” at Hamburg Inn No. 2, he ordered a takeaway dinner of bacon cheeseburgers and pie shakes for the ride back to the hotel.
Yang said that he eats healthier back home in New York City, but with a focus on hydration and spreading his eating across the entire day, he believes he’s doing the best he can while on the road. “I try to stay healthy,” he said as he spooned a chocolate bourbon pecan pie shake into his mouth. The game of Mario Kart his staff had been playing on the TV behind him came to an end and the bus pulled way, on to the next stop.
Gary He is a photojournalist based in New York City.