Pandemic in NJ forces 1.2 million to become ‘food insecure,’ report says

Number surges by 56% this year, higher than national rate due to hard-hit hospitality and leisure industries
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
April 23, 2020: Women wait in line to receive food assistance at Oasis in Paterson.

The number of New Jerseyans who have uncertain access to healthy food is expected to increase by more than 50% by the end of this year because of the pandemic, bringing the total of “food insecure” people to 1.2 million, or 13.5% of the population, according to a report issued on Wednesday.

For children, the projected increase is even bigger, at 75%, bringing the total to 365,000, the report said.

The Community Food Bank of New Jersey, the state’s biggest food bank, said the New Jersey increase is 10 percentage points bigger than the national average, and greater than the rises reported for Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York.

New Jersey’s projected increase is 56% from the pre-pandemic level of 774,000 food-insecure people. That exceeds a 46% national increase, as well as the 45% rises for both New York and Pennsylvania.

The higher New Jersey rate reflects its heavy economic dependence on the leisure and hospitality industries which have been devastated by the pandemic, with more than six months of closures or partial reopenings, said the report, titled “Covid-19’s Impact on Food Insecurity in New Jersey.”

The new projected rate of food insecurity exceeds the 12.3% seen at the depth of the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Wiping out a decade of progress

“In less than a year, COVID-19 is erasing nearly a decade of advancement towards food security in New Jersey and nationwide,” said Carlos Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, in a statement. “It’s clear from the data presented in this report that no part of our state will be spared from the pandemic’s effects on hunger. The public, private, and nonprofit sectors must work together in response to the long-term elevated need that we’re going to see throughout New Jersey.”

Since unemployment spiked with the state-ordered shutdown of many businesses in March, far more people have become dependent on food assistance. The Community Food Bank plus others in South Jersey and Atlantic and Monmouth counties have stepped up their distribution of food through local pantries and nonprofits, and at large-scale food distribution events, which have drawn hundreds of families.

The extra need for food has been driven by the high jobless rate, currently at 16.6%, or almost twice the national rate, and by the ending in July of the federal government’s $600-a-week supplemental jobless benefit. In the future, food-relief advocates fear the consequences of an end to New Jersey’s moratorium on evictions, which is effective until two months after the official end of the statewide health emergency.

The report warned that higher food insecurity could outlast the pandemic. It noted that in the Great Recession of the late 2000s, the phenomenon didn’t peak until two years after the recession started, and didn’t return to pre-recession levels for 10 years.

Hard hit Atlantic County

Atlantic County, with its concentration of casinos, hotels and Shore-based businesses, has been especially hard-hit, the report said. It is projected to have the state’s highest rate of food-insecure people, 18.2%, this year, up from 11.4% in 2018.

“A big industry that is susceptible to having an impact and causing higher food insecurity is hospitality,” Rodriguez said in an interview.

The county with the biggest total number of food-insecure residents this year is Essex with some 137,000, up from 100,000 in 2018.

Rodriguez said state government has been very supportive of the need for more government assistance and has secured federal funding to help meet the higher demand for food.

Now the question is how will the state and the nonprofit sector like the food banks respond to a long-term challenge of feeding people if and when the economy recovers, he said.

“That’s the million-dollar question: what have we done and what do we need to do as this turns from an immediate response to a lingering recovery like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” Rodriguez said.

Another bump for SNAP

On Wednesday, the state’s Department of Human Services said it will provide another $42.4 million in  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for 243,000 families in October, bringing to $301.7 million in additional SNAP benefits since the pandemic began in March.

Extension of SNAP benefits was a successful way of helping people cope with the economic downturn of the 2007-2009 recession, and should be extended through the current pandemic, the report said.

“Emergency food is most effective when it acts as a complement to robust safety-net supports,” the report said.

It said food insecurity could be eased with more support from the federal government, following Congress’s failure to agree on a replacement for the $600-a-week-program that ended on July 31. The report urged the federal government to renew a program that was designed to make up for the loss of school meals when many public schools closed in the spring.

“It is no exaggeration to say that those funds were a lifeline to individuals and families, and they should be renewed to last until the pandemic is over,” it said.