Food banks welcome legislative help to curb persistent food insecurity

Increased demand for food assistance expected to continue all while state economy recovers
Credit: (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
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Four bills that would increase state food benefits, improve information for recipients, and streamline the state’s efforts to curb food insecurity now wait for Gov. Phil Murphy to sign them into law as New Jersey emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bills are a response to an estimated 56% increase in the number of New Jerseyans who are food-insecure — meaning those who don’t have consistent access to nutritious and affordable food — since before the pandemic.

The Community Food Bank of New Jersey, the state’s biggest, estimates that 1.2 million people, including 400,000 children, are now food-insecure. That number is not expected to decline rapidly during the economic recovery because some people are saddled with debt taken on during the pandemic, and others laid off last year have been unable to find work that pays as well as their previous jobs.

The bills were endorsed by all five of the state’s food banks, which have been feeding up to 58% more people since the pandemic began in March 2020 than they did beforehand.

“By targeting state resources and action to high-impact programs that effectively address food insecurity, these bills will improve our state’s footing to recover from the pandemic-triggered hunger crisis stronger than ever,” the food banks said in a letter to lawmakers on June 16.

Higher demand, higher costs

Higher demand for food assistance resulted in big increases in the amount of food distributed by the food banks and in the cost of buying the food during the pandemic. The Food Bank of South Jersey, for example, increased its food budget last year by some 350% from pre-pandemic levels while Norwescap, which serves the low-income population in northwestern New Jersey, supplied 500,000 pounds of food in 2020, a 25% increase over 2019.

Two of the bills (A-5882 and A-5883) would provide a state supplement of 10 cents a meal to federal programs that provide food when schools are out during the summer, as well as breakfast during the school year.

Another bill (A-5880) would create a cellphone app for recipients of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. The software would allow users to check on the status of their applications; review the balance on their electronic benefits cards, and upload required documents, among other services.

Lawmakers also gave their final approval on June 24 to A-5884 for a food insecurity advocate to be appointed by the governor to coordinate the work of state departments that currently manage different aspects of the issue.

Appoint special state advocate?

The advocate’s responsibilities would include setting up a 24-hour hunger hotline; identifying unfilled needs in food-insecurity services and helping food banks reduce food waste.

“The State’s food insecurity programs are currently operating in silos and, in some cases, they may all cover the same families, yet not all eligible families are enrolled into each program,” the bill’s language says.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, (D-Middlesex), said he sponsored three of the bills because of the spike in food insecurity during the pandemic, and the continuing challenge even as the state reopens.

“We need to get back on the track in helping to defeat this insidious enemy,” he said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News. “It’s something that we can all understand because it resonates with people. It’s something that we can get behind when our neighbors and our friends go hungry.”

Coughlin said he hopes the economy will “roar back” as the pandemic recedes and that food insecurity will decline with it, but the reality is that high demand for food assistance will persist for some time, as forecast by the food banks.

“You’ve lost your job, you’ve been out of work for some period of time, you probably have back rent, or mortgage and utility bills you haven’t been able to pay, and as you dig yourself out of a hole, you may come looking for food assistance,” he said. Coughlin said he expects Murphy to sign the bills.

Experience indicates that hunger persists long after a recession officially ends, and that means planning for higher demand, said Fred Wasiak, president of the Food Bank of South Jersey, which serves four counties. After the 2007-2009 financial crash, food security rates took almost a decade to return to pre-recession levels, he said.

Long road back

“We know that an improving economy may not mean a return to food security for those who have accrued back rent or other debt that will be coming due, whose jobs were eliminated, or who can no longer find work with the equivalent hours and wages as they had prior to the pandemic,” Wasiak said.

The proposed app for SNAP recipients will help more people receive the benefits they are entitled to, Wasiak said. And he welcomed the planned 10 cents-per-meal supplement to federal feeding programs, saying they will help reach more children, and potentially provide a greater choice of nutritious food.

Carlos Rodriguez, president of the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, which serves 15 counties, said all the bills will help reduce food insecurity after its pandemic-driven surge.

“They continue to build a very comprehensive response to the problem of creating food security, especially in an evolving time that we’re in right now,” Rodriguez said. “We’re still trying to see how we get from immense relief and need that we saw over the last six months to what the ongoing need is going to be.”

Rodriguez said he welcomed the proposal to create an app for benefits recipients as “absolutely the right type of thinking” and said that a new state advocate for food insecurity would improve coordination between the agencies, and with the food banks.

“The need that we’re seeing now, it’s not going to go away overnight,” Rodriguez said. “It’s going to keep evolving as benefits change. We are setting ourselves up to be as responsive as possible.”

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