The Garden Isn’t Full for Everyone

NJ’s Place in National Food Insecurity

March 6, 2022

Senator Cory Booker (Photo courtesy of Cory Booker)

As an advanced nation in a world of sophisticated technology and consistent innovation, many view the United States as the pinnacle of human progress. However, beneath layers of extravagant richness and dazzling modernism still exists a plight that has plagued the globe for many centuries—food insecurity.

Most commonly defined as a lack of access to affordable, nutritious food, the dramatic narrative of food insecurity is told most intensely through explicit statistics. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2020, the United States recorded a rate of hunger of 10.5 percent, meaning about 13.8 million individuals experienced food insecurity at some point in 2020. 

As reported by New Jersey State Health Assessment Data in New Jersey, the rate of food insecurity in 2019 hovered at 8.6 percent, affecting roughly 762,530 New Jersey residents.

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who has served in Congress since 2013 and served as the mayor of Newark from 2006 to 2013, has first-hand experience in both federal and local initiatives to reduce food insecurity. Booker is actively a part of a bipartisan, bicameral push for a national conference on food, nutrition, hunger and health.

“While we have made progress addressing hunger in America, we are still grappling with food insecurity—1 in 10 New Jersey children live in homes without consistent access to the foods they need to live active, healthy lives,” Booker told Optic. “On top of that, we now face a second food crisis—one of nutrition insecurity—where too many Americans are overfed but undernourished.”

Booker is not alone in recognizing the dangers of food insecurity, as the federal government both financially and verbally recognizes the necessity of supporting those experiencing food insecurity. As of September of 2021, the Biden administration committed to a $10 billion increase on spending to fight against food insecurity both across the United States and abroad.

The Biden administration’s plan to combat hunger also expresses a key goal in creating more sustainable food systems by, “expanding income opportunities, stabilizing food supply and prices, reducing food loss and waste and improving dietary diversity and nutrition.” This goal is explained as requiring work in three dimensions of sustainable development: social, economic and environmental. 

While the federal government’s actions seem like promising initiatives to efficiently attack the causes and effects of food insecurity, Senator Booker maintains that the continuation of food insecurity is a nuanced issue that is perpetuated through both the consequences of poor former policies and present corporate activity.

“These crises both stem from decades-long policy failures in our food system and are relentlessly reinforced by the multinational corporations that dictate the foods available to us, which are making us sick and causing us to spend an ever-increasing amount of taxpayer dollars on healthcare costs to treat diet-related diseases,” said Booker.

Booker’s explanation of the systemic problems promoted through corporate pursuits trace back to government regulations and the extent to which politicians listen to their constituents who experience food insecurity on a daily basis. 

As evidenced by Booker’s support for numerous congressional bills connected to reducing food insecurity, Booker holds a reputation for aiming to tangibly combat food insecurity. However, a lack of genuine concern emulated amongst many politicians is a serious barrier to effectively analyzing and dismantling the systemic cycle of food insecurity.

While we have made progress addressing hunger in America, we are still grappling with food insecurity—1 in 10 New Jersey children live in homes without consistent access to the foods they need to live active, healthy lives.

— Senator Cory Booker

Currently, the national government’s pivotal role in reducing food insecurity is heavily based in two federal programs: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Both programs require applications based on household income, resources and personal information before individuals access assistance that is largely centered around food stamps.

Eligible individuals receive a determined amount of program benefits through a Families First Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, which acts as a debit card that can be used at a variety of supermarkets and select farmers’ markets. At the pre-approved stores, those with the card can purchase fruits, vegetables, beans, fish, poultry, meat, rice, bread, tortillas, cereal, milk, cheese and more. 

Like SNAP, WIC also uses a similar debit card system to assist low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, infants and children up to age five. In addition to the monthly benefits yielded by this system, the program seeks to educate this demographic on healthy eating and breastfeeding with referrals to health care.

The amount of benefits given to each person through SNAP changes frequently based upon a variety of circumstances. According to CNBC and NPR, in October 2021, 42 million food stamp recipients were positively impacted by a 25 percent increase of SNAP benefits as compared to pre-COVID-19 levels. Before the pandemic, recipients would get $121 per individual per month. Following the 25 percent increase, recipients now receive $157 per month per individual. 

While serving as the Mayor of Newark, Booker embarked on a self-imposed SNAP challenge in 2012 in which he attempted to live on the monetary equivalent of food stamps for a week, which totaled to a meager $4.32 per day. In doing so, Booker invited the public to understand that while the food stamp program stems from positive intentions to alleviate the struggles of food insecurity, the benefits of food stamps are not sufficient and still leaves individuals with hunger that is difficult to manage.

Alongside government initiatives, non-profit organizations act as important forces in reducing hunger statewide, such as the Community Food Bank of New Jersey (CFBNJ), located in Hillside, N.J. Beginning more than 45 years ago in a station wagon, CFBNJ now functions out of a 23,000 square foot facility to distribute food to certain community organizations that provide the food to local individuals. In order to receive assistance from the food bank, organizations must first contact the food bank and meet compliance standards that determine their ability to store food. 

Westfield Food Pantry Director Rose O’Hare and Volunteer Dan Convery (Photo Siena Jabon)

While CFBNJ functions as a non-profit organization, additional funding is still required to efficiently provide sufficient food to community organizations.  

“Our organization is funded partially through private donations from individuals,” CBFNJ Community Outreach Manager Diana Levy told Optic. “Some of it is funded through grants that we received through foundations or other organizations. Some of it is from state funding, and then some of it is funded through state programs.”

According to Levy, CBFNJ also practices gleaning: collecting excess food from farms, gardens and restaurants. CBFNJ has, “relationships with supermarkets, some restaurants and farming organizations,” who provide the food bank with food that, while safe to eat, may not be able to be sold in their given establishments for one reason or another. 

Other local initiatives similarly aim to provide food-insecure individuals with both sufficient and nutritious foods. Since March 2020, former Toms River Councilman Terrance Turnbach has organized weekly food distributions called “Pop-the Trunk” food distributions. His organization has proven incredibly important with a consistent presence of food insecure individuals needing a diverse array of food.

“We did it one week and knew we’d have to come back for a second just based upon need,” said Turnbach in an interview with Optic. “Second week led to the third week, third week led to the month and now we just finished week 93.”

In achieving the food distribution’s success, Turnbach and other organizers have utilized community resources to support local individuals. Fulfill, formerly named the Monmouth Ocean Food Bank, provides much of the food for the distribution in the form of crisis boxes containing foods such as canned soup, condensed milk and rice. Alongside these foods with a longer shelf life, Fulfill also provides fresh produce like carrots, onions, potatoes and yams. 

However, recognizing the need for fresh produce in food distribution, the organizers of these food distributions have often supplemented the produce they receive from Fulfill with that of the produce they purchase at a discounted price from private businesses such as Toms River’s produce distributor M. V. Silveri & Sons. 

“Their cans will last, but they’re looking for the vegetables and produce,” said Turnbach.

The food distribution offers a simple process for individuals to receive assistance. Those in need of food simply drive to the location of the food distribution and open their trunk for the food to be placed in, never needing to provide proof that they cannot afford to purchase food at the moment. Such a feature separates community initiatives like Turnbach’s from government programs like SNAP considering that an application process is eliminated and individuals simply drive up to the food distribution location and receive the foods they require.

Food pantries also function in distributing food to individuals themselves, such as the Westfield Food Pantry. This pantry has been operating out of Holy Trinity School for over 30 years and is run by volunteers, largely members of the parish. Families or individuals in need are matched with the pantry by social services who determine the client’s needs.

Westfield Food Pantry Director Rose O’Hare notes that the extent of food insecurity in Westfield has shifted throughout the years. “Years ago, we used to have huge families,” O’Hare said. “I don’t see that as much anymore. We get more smaller families and senior citizens.”

While Westfield is an affluent community, such a generalization of widespread wealth conceals the reality of residents who struggle with food insecurity, creating a stigma that may make it difficult for residents to seek assistance.

“I strongly believe that there are people in town that could use food. Even if it’s just once. That’s okay,” said O’Hare. 

With storerooms piled high with nearly everything on a standard grocery list, from beans to bread, the Westfield Food Pantry is ready to help. The community supports the pantry’s success as schools across the town often organize food drives for the pantry to assist in their charitable work.

While any type of donation is welcomed, the pantry often receives large amounts of unhealthy canned vegetables and candy, evidence of a systemic continuation of poor health among food insecure individuals. Even if donations to the Food Pantry are helpful in reducing local hunger, health issues such as diabetes and heart disease can be caused in part by a poor diet, plaguing individuals with added medical expenses and increased stress.

“Often, the only thing these people in need get are these highly processed, packaged foods,” O’Hare said. 

Considering the lack of fresh produce, the Westfield Food Pantry does its best to ensure its clients are receiving enough fresh fruits and vegetables to sustain as healthy of a lifestyle as possible. They have their own garden, maintained by volunteers, and collaborate with the United Methodist Church to direct the harvest of the Church’s garden to Holy Trinity’s clients in need.

Individuals can contribute their own time in helping Holy Trinity’s effort to reduce food insecurity on a local level by either donating food or volunteering their time in packing bins for client families. To get involved with the Westfield Food Pantry, contact O’Hare at [email protected].

The battle against food insecurity is continuous and increasingly important. We must bring every individual to a standard of living where the basic necessity of food is adequately present. 

The presence and consistent advancement of government programs, non-profit initiatives and local groups is crucial in helping millions of food insecure individuals. “We must continue to confront these challenges, develop comprehensive solutions to fix our food system, and ensure that all people—from rural communities to cities like Newark, where I live—have access to fresh, healthy foods,” said Booker.

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