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What Biden eats while campaigning reveals a lot about him and voters he's courting

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Apparently, you say a lot with what you choose to eat, especially in public. On the campaign trail, where the president is eating and drinking says something about him and the voters he's courting. Here's NPR White House correspondent Deepa Shivaram.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Hey, man. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right.

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: When President Biden was in Los Angeles last week for an event on student loan debt, he made a quick detour.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Smile. Say hi to the president, girl.

BIDEN: How are you?

SHIVARAM: At a Mexican cafe, he surprised diners and took selfies before he ordered a breakfast burrito to go. There's been mounting criticism lately about things from the president's age to his policies. As Biden has been trying to get out of Washington and into swing states, these kinds of stops have become part of Biden's routine. In New York City this week, he ordered mint chip ice cream with late-night host Seth Meyers. Earlier this month, he tried boba tea in Las Vegas' Chinatown. And outside Raleigh, he stopped for burgers and a milkshake at the Southern fast-food chain Cookout. But when you're the president, a meal isn't ever just a meal. Biden's choices in where to stop and what to order are very deliberate.

ALEX PRUD'HOMME: Food is more than simply nutrition. It is a series of symbols.

SHIVARAM: That's Alex Prud'homme. He wrote a book called "Dinner With The President" that's all about how politics intersects with food.

PRUD'HOMME: Food is relatable because we all have to eat. If you see a candidate eating the kind of food you like, it gives you a level of comfort.

SHIVARAM: Take, for example, Biden trying boba tea. It's a Taiwanese drink with tapioca pearls inside, popular with Asian Americans and younger people. And it also sends a message to voters who think he's too old for the job, says Hunter Lewis, the editor-in-chief of Food and Wine.

HUNTER LEWIS: Age is the question right now. And so I think going to a Cookout, going to a boba tea shop, those are smart moves. I mean, he is projecting that he connects with a younger audience and is in the know.

SHIVARAM: These stops on the trail are a stark contrast to former President Donald Trump, the likely Republican candidate in this election. He prefers big rallies, not these small settings. They're also a contrast to Biden's official events and get him out from behind the podium and engaging in retail politics. Jim Messina, who ran President Obama's 2012 campaign, says it's a more natural place for Biden to be.

JIM MESSINA: Joe Biden feeds off the crowd. He's a little like Bill Clinton. He's better in that setting. He likes it.

SHIVARAM: It is a smaller crowd when Biden makes these stops, but his team makes sure to capture the moments to share online through social media. One of those videos features Juan Vargas. He runs Nowhere Coffee with his wife outside Allentown, Pa. When Biden came to visit last month, he ordered a smoothie and then sat down with the Vargases for 40 minutes and talked about everything from oil prices to the cost of drugs. It was a planned conversation, but Vargas said it meant a lot.

JUAN VARGAS: I didn't realize, it's really real to him when he's saying this stuff on the TV, you know? He does, actually - he looks at you, and you, like, you can feel it.

SHIVARAM: The campaign is hoping Biden's food stops on the trail help him break through and connect with people, even if they're not interested in politics. It's a strategy that shows they're reaching to bring in more voters in an election that is likely to be decided by a small margin.

Deepa Shivaram, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.