Assembly Speaker Coughlin has served up a 14-bill buffet. Watch video
On this sublime day dedicated to caloric excess, here is a nugget that is difficult to chew on: One out of 8 people in New Jersey is food insecure, which means they lack an adequate, consistent supply of food.
That is not intended as a helping of holiday shame. It is merely a reminder that with roughly 1 million hungry neighbors, our Garden State pride contains a dollop of irony. And this is part of the heartbreaking arithmetic: In our state, 270,000 children are food insecure.
If you find this inexcusable, you should applaud Craig Coughlin’s way of attacking this growing crisis.
The Assembly Speaker has helped replenish and reinvest in food programs during his time in the Legislature. And there is an army of stalwarts who make the Community FoodBank of New Jersey the most formidable anti-poverty institution in our state, one that delivered 47 million meals to more than 1,000 soup kitchens and food pantries and shelters last year alone.
But as poverty grows throughout Jersey, and the federal government reduces access to SNAP benefits, more people need help. As Adele LaTourette of Hunger Free New Jersey puts it, “In pantries throughout our state, emergency food has become sustaining food.”
This is Coughlin’s cue to act, and he is jumping in with both feet.
The Speaker has introduced a sweeping package of 14 bills that will attack hunger on every level – notably by reducing our preposterous number of food deserts (134), which the USDA defines as areas that are more than one mile from a market in urban areas and 10 miles in rural areas.
His charge is compelling: “If you want a call yourself a great state, you have to feed your people,” Coughlin says. “The number of hungry New Jerseyans is just not acceptable.”
This package, which will be debated in the Assembly Human Services Committee next Thursday, has four components.
One component includes four bills on food waste alone, which is critical, because our garbage disposals eat better than much of the state population: The Natural Resources Defense Council says that 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. never gets eaten. We throw away $165 billion in food every year – that’s 240 pounds per person.
There are also three bills that assist farmers, with one establishing produce pilot programs for food deserts; and four bills that eliminate red tape, including one that will assist women, infants and children gain access to the nutrition program known as WIC.
But the access component to the key to this package, and there are two jewels in that crown.
One is the Hunger-Free Campus Act, which addresses food insecurity among public college students — a common problem, because it’s hard to take daily classes while working the 20 federally-required hours each week to qualify for SNAP benefits. How common? A recent Temple study found that one-third of New Jersey’s 419,000 college students (139,000) are food insecure.
So this bill gives grants to schools that help students enroll in SNAP and provide a food pantry on campus.
The other is the Food Desert Elimination Act. There are 300,000 New Jerseyans living in a food desert, where supermarkets won’t settle because it isn’t profitable. Coughlin’s bill will provide tax incentives for grocery stores to relocate to these deserts, along with a component that allows for alcohol sales.
“You can’t raise a family when you rely on convenience stores or gas stations for food,” Coughlin says. “So we have to bring the markets to them, markets with fresh produce.”
To make a point about food deserts, comedian Larry Wilmore, who had a brief but excellent run on Comedy Central, once sent a correspondent on a quest to find one heirloom tomato in the entire city of Camden. Needless to say, the guy was exasperated by the end of his journey, seething that he could only find processed foods “made out of robot parts.”
But that is the reality for 1 million New Jerseyans who don’t know how they’ll feed themselves or their families every day. If you agree that this must end, particularly in a state of such abundance, tell your district representatives about it. And have a Happy Thanksgiving.