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Assembly Passes Raft of Bills to Fight ‘Food Insecurity’ in Garden State

Finding solutions for New Jerseyans who don’t have easy access to nutritious food, or even to enough food, was a priority for Speaker Coughlin

Food market
Credit: Creative Commons
Decent food is out of reach for many New Jerseyans.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin announced earlier this year that he was making the fight against hunger in New Jersey a priority. The Assembly delivered on his promise in the final legislative voting session of 2018 on Monday, passing 16 bills that seek to improve people’s access to nourishment and reduce food waste.

The eventual enactment of these and other measures to tackle “food insecurity,” which affects some 1.1 million New Jerseyans, could prove especially important in the near future. On Thursday, the Trump administration proposed a rule that would impact the ability of New Jersey and other states to continue to provide federal food assistance to some needy adults. The proposal would make it harder for states to receive a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to continue paying Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamp, to adults who are not disabled, do not have young children, and are not working or in school.

The USDA proposed the rule on the same day that Trump signed into law a renewed farm bill that does not toughen work requirements or tighten waiver criteria. New Jersey currently has a partial waiver to allow so-called able-bodied adults from continuing to receive SNAP if they are unemployed and live in parts of the state with high unemployment rates. About 730,000 New Jerseyans got SNAP benefits last September, but it is unclear how many of them could lose them if the rule is adopted.

“The area waivers are important, albeit insufficient, safety valves for protecting food assistance for persons who are seeking but unable to find sufficient hours of work,” said James D. Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center. “The Administration now proposes to politicize the process at the state level, reduce the ability of states to follow Congress’ intent, and arbitrarily narrow states’ ability to waive the time limit in areas with insufficient jobs. Its action flies in the face of congressional intent, coming just days after Congress passed a new Farm Bill that left the current area waiver provisions in place. The Administration’s release of its proposed rule sends struggling people a cruel message this holiday season — not one of hope and goodwill, but one of greater hunger and hardship if the rule is adopted.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin
Credit: whyy.org
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin pledged to work on hunger in New Jersey.

Food insecurity affects about 13 percent of the state population. Coughlin (D-Middlesex) had unveiled a 14-bill package of anti-hunger measures last month and saw them through committee hearings and a floor vote. The Assembly passed all but one on Monday, with virtually all getting near-unanimous or significant bipartisan support. Three other measures not part of the package but also related to hunger passed, as well.

‘Food deserts’

Just one measure passed with only Democratic votes. That was A-4700, which would provide incentives to supermarkets and grocery stores to locate in so-called “food deserts,” typically urban areas where people do not have easy access to a grocery store selling fresh produce nearby.

Coughlin is a co-sponsor of that bill, the “Food Desert Elimination Act,” which would require the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, in consultation with the state departments of agriculture and community affairs, to designate as many as 75 areas as food deserts. The first grocery store to open in a food desert would receive a property-tax credit for its first four years of operation. It would also be eligible to purchase a special permit that would allow it to sell alcoholic beverages. (New Jersey grocery stores typically do not sell alcohol.)

“One in nine residents in the state is food insecure and, in New Jersey, 41 cities can be classified as ‘food deserts,’” said Coughlin. “To fight hunger effectively, we must address all possible sources of food insecurities for New Jersey families. This is one of them. We need grocery stores and supermarket chains to expand into these areas, and stay in these areas to provide fresh food and produce to the community. Tax incentives will help us achieve that goal.”

Two other bills that passed are meant to help give greater access to food. One of those (A-4702) is called the “Hunger-Free Campus Act” and would require the state secretary of higher education to establish a $1 million grant program to address food insecurity among students enrolled in public colleges. The other (AJR-60) would designate each November as “Food Pantry Donation Month” to encourage people to donate food to organizations that help those in need.

“The goal of this legislation is to help New Jersey residents become more educated about the crucial role food pantries play in feeding those who struggle with hunger, malnutrition and even starvation — all of which are the result of food insecurity,” said Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez (D-Middlesex), a co-sponsor or AJR-60.

Reducing waste

“Supporting food banks gives each of us a way to help reduce hunger in our communities. It is a way that all of us can contribute and make a tremendous impact,” Lopez said.

Four bills, all meant to reduce food waste in the state, also passed. AJR-172 would designate the Thursday of the third week of September of each year as “Food Waste Prevention Day” in New Jersey. AJR-174 would urge large food retailers to reduce food waste. A-4707 would direct the state Department of Agriculture to establish a public awareness campaign about food waste. And A-4705 would establish the New Jersey Food Waste Task Force to make recommendations to help the state reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030.

“Forty percent of the food produced in the United States ends up uneaten and tossed into the garbage each year,” said Assemblywoman Linda Carter (D-Union), who co-sponsored the bill that would create the task force. “As one in 10 residents in New Jersey face food insecurity, more than 400 pounds of food per person is lost or wasted. It’s a shame and we must figure out actionable steps to prevent and reduce food waste going forward.”

Cutting red tape

Several other bills focus on cutting the red tape that can make it harder for people to get information or access to food. A-4701 would require the Department of Human Services to establish an electronic portal to promote surplus food donation collaboration among nonprofit organizations, food retailers and gleaners, who gather leftover grain or other crops that would otherwise go to waste. AJR-175 would urge the state’s chief innovation officer to prioritize the enhancement of NJOneApp — where people can apply for social services — to include all state anti-hunger programs. A-4703 would require the state’s chief technology officer to establish an “Anti-Hunger Link,” which would provide information on soup kitchens, food pantries and other emergency food services, on all state websites.

“With the way some of our state websites are currently laid out, it could be difficult for users to navigate and register for food insecurity programs,” said Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union), a co-sponsor of A-4703. “By making this link a prominent, relevant feature on our websites, it will limit the challenges and sometimes even stresses that many hungry residents experience when trying to learn more about and apply for food programs.”

Several other measures were directed at farmers. A-4708 would establish a farm liaison in the DOA who would encourage farmers’ participation in state programs that include anti-hunger initiatives. ACR-204 would urge the New Jersey Judiciary to promote public awareness campaigns for food growers to register as placement worksites for community service programs; that would enable them to get assistance with the gleaning of crops to be used by food pantries and soup kitchens. A-4704 would directs the DOA to establish two-year food desert produce pilot programs of year-round, weekly produce markets in three food-desert communities, including one in a rural area.

“The markets will allow residents to purchase fresh, healthy produce at a reasonable cost,” said Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-Burlington), a sponsor of the pilot project legislation. “When people are able to get fresh fruit and vegetables right in their community, they are more likely to purchase them.”

Now up to the Senate

All 13 of the bills in the package that passed the Assembly now head to the Senate for further consideration.

The Assembly passed two additional resolutions, AR-195 and AR-205 both of which support gleaning programs.

“By asking colleges and universities in the state to encourage students to seek out gleaning activities, we can help deliver fresh, nutritious foods to struggling families who may not always have access to healthy meals,” said Lopez, a co-sponsor of AR-205, which urges colleges to coordinate and promote gleaning opportunities. “This will get us closer to taking full advantage of our food supply and ending hunger statewide, and help promote valuable volunteer opportunities for young people.”

A bill meant to increase the availability of healthy foods in lower income, urban and rural communities received final legislative passage and was sent to the governor. A-2164 which is Called the “Healthy Small Food Retailer Act,” would make funds available to assist small food retailers selling fresh food to continue to operate in low- and moderate-income urban and rural communities.

A fund to help corner stores

“This bill is designed to boost the availability of fresh produce and other healthy foods, at affordable prices, to residents in neighborhoods that are typically underserved in this area,” said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic) and a sponsor of the bill. “Ultimately, our goal is to improve the health and wellness of community residents in low-income and urban areas.”

The bill would require the Department of Health to develop a “Healthy Corner Store Program” to increase the availability of fresh produce and nutritious food by small food retailers in these areas and to establish a fund to support the program. The DOH would select a nonprofit to administer the program. Small retailers could receive a one-time grant of up to $5,100 each for salaries and administrative costs; refrigeration, display shelving, or other equipment necessary to stock healthy foods and fresh produce, materials and supplies for nutrition education and healthy food promotion; and to pay initial expenses incurred with participation in the program.

“Not all communities have the luxury of having a supermarket that is easily accessible by foot or via public transportation,” said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden), another sponsor. “These families deserve better options than just conveniences stores, which often have limited healthy options and tend to be pricier than grocery stores.”

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