Anti-hunger activists welcomed a package of bills, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday, that are designed to create a comprehensive approach to hunger and food waste by raising public awareness of the large quantity of edible food that’s discarded and creating mechanisms for more food to be directed to people who don’t have enough.
The bills will improve access to healthy food for people living in so-called “food deserts,” coordinate the food-waste efforts of state agencies, and encourage the public not to throw out food that is safe and edible.
Americans throw away an estimated 30 to 40 percent of their food, which accounts for about a fifth of total waste in landfills. That should be used instead to meet growing demand at the state’s food pantries and homeless shelters, said state Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), who co-sponsored two of the six bills signed by the governor.
Murphy also signed four joint resolutions, including one urging large food retailers to reduce food waste and another calling for the inclusion of all state anti-hunger programs in NJOneApp to make it easier for people to apply for food-assistance programs. Two others seek to publicly highlight the need for pantry donations and food-waste prevention.
“This is just absolutely unacceptable,” Smith said in a statement. “There is no conceivable reason we should ever be wasting food.”
A look at the new laws
In 2017, then-Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill, also sponsored by Smith, to reduce the amount of food waste in the state by 50 percent over 13 years. The departments of Agriculture and Environmental Protection were given a year to develop an implementation program. The DEP did not respond Thursday to a question on whether the program is now in operation.
One of the new bills (A-4707) directs the Department of Agriculture to work with the Community Food Bank of New Jersey to develop a public-awareness campaign about the nearly 20 pounds of food that the average consumer wastes each month, according to the federal government.
Part of the campaign would educate people on the correct meaning of store labels like “expiration” and “use by” which activists say lead many people to unnecessarily throw out good food that could be used to supply pantries and soup kitchens.
Another bill (A-4704) directs the Department of Agriculture to set up weekly fruit and vegetable markets to operate year-round in food deserts, where residents have limited access to supermarkets or other sources of healthy food.
A third bill (A-4705) sets up a task force on food waste within the Department of Human Services that will be responsible for examining and recommending legislative or executive action.
47 million meals served by Food Bank
Carlos Rodriguez, chief executive of the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, called the package “an amazing first step” toward reducing hunger for the more than 700,000 New Jerseyans who use almost 1,000 food pantries or soup kitchens across 16 counties at some point each year. In total, the state has an estimated 900,000 people who sometimes don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and so are classed as “food insecure,” he said.
“The bills do the very important job of getting the collective attention, not just a personal commitment but making this really a legislative priority,” he said. He called the package “a conversation starter” that links hunger with food waste, and identifies who is hungry in New Jersey.
In 2018, the Community Food Bank provided 47 million meals to its clients, the vast majority of which were made with donated food that would otherwise have been wasted, Rodriguez said. But there is “a lot more” that could still be diverted from the waste stream to organizations that serve hungry people, he said.
He praised the bills’ recognition that educating the public on food waste is a crucial step to success. “Raising public awareness is absolutely the key to this,” he said, and part of that awareness is understanding that hunger exists in every community.
Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey, a nonprofit that advocates for legislative and policy changes to fight hunger, said the bill package raises the profile of hunger in the public eye, and improves the chances that organizations like hers will be better able to meet their goals.
“Just having this much attention focused on hunger is so refreshing and so exciting,” she said.
In particular, she welcomed a bill (A-4702) that sets up a grant program to address food insecurity among students at public colleges. The law, which appropriates $1 million in public funds, will give grants to institutions that are designated by the Secretary of Higher Education as hunger-free campuses.
A fundamental priority
But LaTourette warned that the drive to reduce food waste must also ensure that food donations to anti-hunger organizations are safe to eat.
“We have to make sure that it’s not food that is going to make people sick,” she said. “We have to build in protections.”
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, who led the legislative effort, said at a news conference that addressing hunger is a fundamental priority. “If we’re going to call ourselves a great state, and we are, one of the things we have to do is make sure that our people are fed,” he said.
Murphy said in a statement that it was a “moral failure” that so many people in New Jersey don’t have enough food to eat.
“This comprehensive approach will allow us to leverage New Jersey’s strengths to better provide for our residents, so families can provide for themselves and their children,” he said.