Trenton must do more to help N.J.’s hungry | Editorial

Published: May. 16, 2022

New Jersey has just received the definitive assessment of its handling of hunger during the pandemic, and here’s what we know about our performance: More than a quarter-million households were food insecure, the state has the resources and talent to prevent systemic meltdowns in the future, and our policy leaders – notably, Gov. Murphy himself – still must prove that they are committed to fixing a very complex system.

These are all spelled out in an extraordinary report from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), the national powerhouse that studies poverty-related hunger, which partnered with Robert Wood Johnson to form an all-star advisory workgroup and prepare dozens of recommendations for food policy initiatives that New Jersey would be wise to consider.

And the report reminds us that we’re running out of time, because food insecurity – a.k.a. the second pandemic – only cuts deeper when there is inflation, supply chain breakdowns, and government indifference.

Start with the math. More than 285,000 households lacked access to affordable food at the height of the pandemic, and it hit hardest along racial and ethnic lines. In 2021, 14% of Black households and 18% of Latino households in New Jersey indicated that they sometimes or often did not have enough food, compared to 5% of white households.

The FRAC panel had a laundry list of policy solutions, but given the overwhelming number of sectors that affect food access in our state -- federal programs, state government, farms, wholesale/retail markets, food banks, non-profits, schools, transportation, and many more – it emphasized that perhaps our greatest need is for a single, cabinet-level designee to coordinate these programs.

Everyone, including Gov. Murphy, seems to agree. He even signed a law to establish a Food Insecurity Advocate, who would be charged with the oversight of our byzantine network of food programs. That was back on Oct. 4.

Seven months later, there is still no food czar, and Murphy’s office will not explain why. A spokeswoman for Craig Coughlin, the point man on most food initiatives in our state, says the Assembly Speaker “has been on top of the administration about filling the position. The administration just this week signaled that the selection process is nearing its completion.”

Given that Murphy has taken more than three years just to fill out his NJ Transit board, we’ll believe it when we see it.

The appointment of a food advocate is critical, because our programs are administered by different departments, and it takes a giant brain to navigate this acronym world: The Department of Human Services administers SNAP, or food stamps; the Department of Health is in charge of WIC (SNAP for Women Infants and Children); the Agriculture and Education Departments run the USDA’s school meals program; and the EDA awards grants for Sustain and Serve, the program that sustains restaurants and distributes free meals to the needy.

Lisa Pitz, the assistant director of Hunger Free New Jersey, explains that these agencies operate in silos -- yet they feed the same people, so there are more efficient ways to coordinate services. The Food Insecurity Advocate would do that.

“We need a centralized system where people can apply for all these services, as a ‘no wrong door’ concept, so people can be connected to all the programs they’re eligible for,” Pitz said. “But someone must take charge and produce a multi-service portal and coordinate these services.”

“A food advocate could expedite the implementation of the report’s recommendations – they can really hit the ground running,” agreed Geraldine Henchy, the Director of Nutrition at FRAC, and a senior member of the project staff. “And New Jersey would be able to show other states how it’s done.”

And as Murphy drags his feet on this appointment, the FRAC report cites gaps in coverage. Two figures stood out: Only 81% of eligible New Jerseyans participated in SNAP in 2018 (28th in the country), and only 58% of the eligible people participated in WIC in 2019 (21st in the country).

We must do better – especially now, with the state facing a pending crisis with food stamps. The federal re-enrollment requirement was waived during the pandemic, but county social services recently began to remind folks (usually by mail) that they needed to be reassessed to maintain their SNAP benefits. The response has not exactly been robust, despite the best efforts of organizations like Legal Services, and DHS anticipates up to 10% of recipients will lose their benefits.

“Maybe some haven’t followed up because they got used to not doing it for two years, or maybe their contact info is dated,” said Pitz. “But anecdotally, far too many people have not been re-certified, and their cases have been closed.”

Hunger Free NJ estimates that the average monthly benefits loss will be $82 per person, with seniors and the disabled the hardest hit, so they anticipate a food insecurity spike in late summer. Factor in supply chain issues, ballooning costs, and dwindling support, and the burden on our food banks - our indispensable heroes -- will be overwhelming.

“New Jersey is going to face a hunger cliff, like other states,” Henchy warned. “There is no time to lose.”

We can all agree that it’s a disgrace for a state this rich to have so many hungry people, but it cannot happen because Trenton takes its eye off the ball.

Coughlin promises to take a deep dive into the FRAC report, referring to it as a “foundation for our next steps.” The administration said it is reviewing the report. Time’s up. Further delay is dangerous and inexcusable.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-05-18 02:51:48 -0700