A few months ago I did the unthinkable. I took money from the poor to care for the poor. One of our formerly homeless soup kitchen guests came to make a gift to the soup kitchen. It was his "repayment" for the help that had been given to him. With donations down, mouths to feed, and the social safety net in tatters, even the poor are doing their part. We are in the perfect storm of high food prices, growing joblessness, and reduced donations and government spending...and at the eye of the storm are those who are poor and middle class, who stand in growing lines at food pantries and soup kitchens. Yes, middle class New Jerseyans have now joined the rank and file at emergency food sites across the state. Everyday, across the state of New Jersey, people are forced to make difficult choices, such as should I pay my rent and my utility bills, or buy food for my family? One of the most disturbing and extraordinary aspects of life in this very wealthy state is the persistence of hunger.
When we talk about hunger in America, we refer to the ability of people to obtain sufficient food for their household. Some people may find themselves skipping meals or cutting back on the quality or quantity of food they purchase in order to stretch their limited resources. This recurring and involuntary lack of access to food can lead to malnutrition over time. The US Department of Agriculture describes this limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food as food insecurity. According to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and Legal Services of New Jersey, food insecurity rates in New Jersey have ranged from 7.7% to now close to 9% of the state population. Economic issues, such as poverty, high housing costs and unemployment are the most commonly cited causes of hunger in New Jersey
So, as the economic storm continues to brew, what are we to do to address the problem of hunger in New Jersey and around the nation? We must move beyond the quick fix emergency system that band aids the problem of hunger, to a long term approach that builds food security. This begins with resources like donations of healthy food and cash. It requires government support, such as increasing the $4 million line item instituted by Governor Corzine to fund the State Food Purchase Program to $10 million to expand food supplies and improve transportation and infrastructure in the emergency food system. It includes the work of community and faith based groups, such as food banks, pantries, soup kitchens and Farmers Against Hunger. It involves the support of the business community, such as the many restaurants who give time and resources to provide food and raise funds to feed people. It means investing in our local food infrastructure by purchasing from our local farmers, establishing community gardens where people can grow their own food, and supporting training and employment in local food businesses that employ local people at living wages.
It means working to insure that people who are eligible for government assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (formerly called food stamps) and school food programs are enrolled and benefiting from the services. New Jersey only reaches about 58% of those who are eligible with food stamps because the application process is so cumbersome and many don't know they are eligible. In addition, New Jersey ranks among the bottom 10 states in school breakfast and summer nutrition program participation which insures low income children have access to meals. Low participation rates in these programs means that we are foregoing millions of federal dollars to help ease the pressure of hunger and avert a crisis in New Jersey. To expand participation we must fund outreach and education, and simplify paperwork to insure that New Jersey's participation rates in school lunch, school breakfast, summer nutrition and food stamp programs improve. New Jersey should continue to simplify and expedite the processing of food stamp applications by using web based technology, extending office hours and expanding the state Food Stamp program to cover a broader range of needy immigrants, those transitioning off welfare to work and those earning up to 185% of the poverty level.
Food security not only means expanded food resources, but also access to healthier foods and expanded opportunities for people to feed themselves. With lines growing at local food pantries and soup kitchens, food prices soaring and donations down, the time to act is now. Together we must forge a partnership of government, business, farmers and community and faith based groups to work together to end hunger and build food security in New Jersey and across the nation.