Even in the densely populated Garden State, there's still room for food deserts. The term, as defined by the state and federal governments, refers to areas with little access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods.
The problem affects cities across the state and low-income urban communities in particular. A lack of supermarkets and large grocery stores can mean a diet based on fast food and convenience market fare, which can ultimately lead to diabetes and other chronic diseases.
As of 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 360,000 people in New Jersey are "food insecure" (lacking in access to nutritious food).
The state Assembly passed a bill (A-3688) this summer to combat the problem, as well as to promote New Jersey farms and products. The measure calls for the state Department of Agriculture to develop a network of mobile farmers markets that will travel to underserved communities and sell fresh produce. The program will include a voucher system that will let low-income residents buy fresh food at a discount.
Although the specifics have yet to be sorted out, most likely community-supported and nonprofit farms will run the markets. The program also will include nutrition education for children.
There is no state funding attached to the project, which will rely on the nonprofit in control to fundraise and garner grants from state foundations. Michelle Knapik, formerly the environmental program director at the Dodge Foundation, said the organization awarded about $300,000 to urban farming and local farmers market projects in 2011.
The state, will be responsible for issuing permits to farm vendors, creating the voucher system, and creating a map that identifies every food desert in the New Jersey. The program will be called New Jersey Fresh Mobile Initiatives.
Gilbert "Whip" Wilson, (D-Camden) sponsor of the bill, said that the problem is so serious in Camden that some nonprofits have already opened farmers markets there.
Wilson and Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher share a vision of an exciting campaign to market healthy eating to children.
"These trucks would roll in, graphically wrapped to be really exciting looking," Fisher explained. Without a marketing strategy geared toward kids, he said, "empty calories will prevail." Wilson's proposal includes nutrition education and advertising components, such as on-site cooking classes at the markets and lessons on how to choose healthier foods over fried and processed ones.
The state has not yet struck a deal with any entities, Wilson said. Fisher indicated that the department has been in talks with a Burlington County farm but that it was too early to say which one. Under the bill, it is up to the Secretary of Agriculture to identify the state's food deserts and plant at least three farmers markets in the state: one in a northern city, one in central New Jersey, and one in the southern part of the state.
According to the bill, the markets would take the same low-income vouchers now accepted by local stores, enabling people to buy raw fish from the market, for example, which local stores might fry on the spot for a small additional cost.
"This is a bit of an innovation in that the Department of Agriculture would bring fresh produce to more urban locations where the marketplace has not created those opportunities," said Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau. "It's the creation of new produce markets." The Farm Bureau has offered to be a link between the department and the state's farms.
"We think it's very timely and very important," Furey said.
For residents of food deserts, the inability to easily get to grocery stores and healthy foods can lead to a slew of chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, heart disease and Type II diabetes, said Dr. Nurgul Fitzgerald, an expert in community nutrition and chronic disease prevention at Rutgers University. Though preventable, these diseases are linked to the soaring cost of healthcare.
"It becomes even more important for kids because many of the conditions later in life can be preset during infancy and pregnancy -- and continue on during childhood," she said.
Some of the preventable diseases, come with "horrendous side effects," said Fitzgerald. Type II diabetes, for instance, is the primary cause of blindness in the United States.
"We need to prevent these disease before they start," Fitzgerald said. "Communities need to be saturated with these messages."
Across the country, 13.5 million people live in food deserts, the USDA website reported in May. Of those, 82 percent live in urban areas. First Lady Michelle Obama drew attention to the issue in 2010 when she announced plans to eradicate food deserts entirely in seven years as part of her Let's Move! program. In May, the USDA launched a "food desert locator," an online application that projects pink splotches (areas it classifies as food deserts) onto a map of the United States as part of the push to increase awareness of the issue.
Food deserts first came to national attention after researcher Mari Gallagher published a report on the effect of urban food insecurity on public health in Chicago in 2006. The study found that people with limited access to grocery stores were more likely to develop diabetes and die prematurely. It also found that food deserts disproportionately affects minorities. "Chicago's food deserts, for the most part," she reported, "are exclusively African-American."
Among Latinos, Fitzgerald's research has found that those with food insecurity are almost two times more likely to have Type II diabetes than their peers.
Since Gallagher's 2006 report, Chicago's city council has attempted to deal with the problem by encouraging chain pharmacies to make fresh produce available to customers.
In New Jersey, one idea is to put coolers in the stores. "That's not enough," said Fisher, a grocer for more than 30 years. "We're trying to build demand for what's fresh." It's not only physical distance from fresh produce, he said, but bombardment from fast-food advertising that prevents healthy eating in urban communities, especially when it comes to children.
"The advertising is really stacked against these kids," said Fisher. In order to convince children to trade in a Happy Meal for a healthy stir-fry, Fisher said, the Department of Agriculture will need to market to urban families.
"It's not just making it available," he said. "It's making somebody recognize the value and want it."
Fitzgerald has other ideas. Though plenty people want to buy fresh food, she countered, they might think they can't afford it.