New Jersey’s Ongoing Fight Against Hunger

Governor Phil Murphy, Speaker Craig Coughlin and several members of the NJ State Assembly put political differences aside to stand together against hunger in Camden.

The Community FoodBank of New Jersey (CFBNJ) projected in September that the number of food insecure New Jersey residents would increase by 56 percent in 2020 because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Carlos Rodriguez, the nonprofit’s President and CEO, says that dire prediction has now become a sad reality for countless families across the Garden State.

“There is no comparison to anything that I’ve seen in the past,” Rodriguez said, “whether it’s the Great Recession of 2008 or Hurricane Sandy. I think the reason for that is you have compounding realities creating the perfect storm.”

CFBNJ helps feed the hungry through more than a 1,000 community partners, including pantries, soup kitchens, emergency shelters and nonprofits like the Meadowlands YMCA. On Tuesdays, the Meadowlands Y teams up with American Dream to distribute meal kits to drivers, who wait in car lines for hours just so they can feed their families. Since March, CFBNJ has distributed enough nutritious food for almost 65 million meals. That’s an impressive figure because the nonprofit’s been carrying out these crucial efforts during a challenging period in history.

At the height of the Coronavirus pandemic, many supermarket shelves remained empty because of food supply problems. In addition, fewer people are able to donate because they’re now finding themselves unemployed. In fact, the Community FoodBank projects more than 431,000 people, who never imagined standing in food lines, may not be able to put food on their tables this holiday season.

“We are seeing more and more people who have never asked for help before, asking for help,” said Nicole Williams, CFBNJ’s Communications and Public Relations Manager.

Volunteers are also working under difficult situations. Despite extreme COVID precautions, many worry about putting their own lives at risk while attempting to help others. But they forge on like soldiers in an army determined to win the battle, this one against hunger.

The “COVID-19’s Impact on Food Insecurity” study by CFBNJ projects New Jersey’s food insecurity rate will climb from 8.7 percent to more than 13.5 percent this year. As families prepare to celebrate Christmas, more than 1.2 million people, including more than 365,000 children, don’t know where their next meal will come from. Alarmingly, New Jersey’s food insecurity numbers are higher than the national average and those in neighboring states like New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware. According to CFBNJ, Black and Latino families and residents living in the southern part of the state are suffering the most.

“What we think is New Jersey has a lot of jobs in the restaurant services and leisure industry, and they’ve been hit so hard,” Williams said. “Atlantic City is in bad shape because their whole economy is connected to the casinos. We know that unemployment is a huge driver of food insecurity.”

New Jersey’s the second richest state in the nation but even before the pandemic, many residents were barely able to survive financially because of the high cost of living. Now, CFBNJ’s study points out, many who were a paycheck or two away from hardship have been pushed over the edge.

“All you have to do is look outside,” said Democratic State Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake, who represents New Jersey’s 34th Legislative District. “Whenever your local government entity and local nonprofits are giving away food, you’ll see people of all previous income levels and demographics waiting in long lines for food. What also concerns me about food insecurity is that it’s a tremor to an earthquake. When a family is facing food insecurity, they’re facing other issues such as foreclosure and eviction.”

Congress on Tuesday passed a $900 billion-dollar Stimulus Package that enhances unemployment benefits, offers $600 dollar checks to middle class Americans, and provides more funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and food banks.

Timberlake says New Jersey’s been at the forefront of addressing food insecurity. Rodriguez agrees, saying under the leadership of State Senate President Steve Sweeney, Governor Phil Murphy and State Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, all Democrats, the state allocated $20 million dollars of its share of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to efforts to fight hunger. That funding helped nonprofits like CFBNJ purchase non-perishable food to meet the greater need, as donations dropped.

“We had to reimagine where our sources come from,” Rodriguez said. “Instead of relying on donations, we had to purchase more and we partnered with the food industry. For example, ShopRite, ACME, Stop & Shop, Kings, Wegmans, just to name a few, made sure they gave above and beyond what they gave us in the past and we could put that in local communities.”

Rodriguez says charity alone isn’t going to stop food insecurity, which has been exacerbated by the Coronavirus pandemic. Fighting hunger, he says, has to be a long-term mission even after the last vaccine is administered. Rodriguez says the SNAP program has to be made more robust to allow eligible New Jersey residents to enroll.

“Long food lines shouldn’t exist,” said Rodriguez, adding New Jersey led the way with SNAP benefits by taking away waivers so those who are struggling could tap into the program.

Republican State Assemblyman Ryan Peters, who served as a Navy Seal in both Iraq and Afghanistan before becoming a politician, says there should be a focus on community partners to battle food insecurity instead of more government spending. In the summer, he helped mobilize an effort to provide meals to 500 Burlington County senior citizens. A number of restaurants in his 8th Legislative District donated food and volunteers delivered the meals.

“The need is great and there are people willing to help,” Peters said. “People want to do good.”

For now, though, even President Donald Trump doesn’t think the just-passed relief package in Congress is enough to address the nightmare Americans are facing. In a stunning move, the President said Tuesday the $600 stimulus checks were “ridiculous” and should be $2,000 instead. However, he failed to mention the amount was negotiated by his own Treasury Secretary. Trump suggested he might not sign the legislation as it stands, calling it “a disgrace” because it contains wasteful spending.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat from California, responded on Twitter, saying the House is scheduled to meet again this week and would move to increase the checks to $2,000.

“Republicans repeatedly refused to say what amount the President wanted for direct checks,” Pelosi tweeted. “At last, the President has agreed to $2,000 — Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week by unanimous consent. Let’s do it.”

In the meantime, President-Elect Joe Biden called the stimulus package a temporary fix, saying once in office, his administration would push for more financial help for Americans.

“Our darkest days are ahead of us, not behind us,” said President-Elect Biden at a press conference Tuesday.

With all the political back-and-forths, CFBNJ isn’t taking any chances. The nonprofit continues its fundraising efforts, as well as pleas to the public for help.

“We have generous corporate partners and grants,” Williams said. “People have been so generous. We still need money and support. All of our problems are not solved.”

If you’re interested in donating or volunteering, go to the Community FoodBank of New Jersey’s website at CFBNJ.org

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