By New Jersey Department of Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez, New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services Commissioner Mary O’Dowd, and New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas H. Fisher
The holiday season is upon us and for most people that means enjoying a festive dinner with family and friends. However, for more than one million New Jersey residents living in food insecure households, the holidays are a stark reminder of how hard it can be to put food on the kitchen table each day.
A survey last year by the New Jersey Federation of Food Banks found that 48% of the 830,000 people they serve report having to choose between buying food and housing costs, 49% choose between paying the utility bills or putting food on the table and 34% choose between paying for food or medicine.
No one should have to worry about where their next meal will come from or have to decide between food, medical care or housing.
To help individuals and families struggling to feed themselves and their loved ones, Governor Christie has committed $6.8 million for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s State Food Purchase Program (SFPP). The funding is distributed quarterly to the state’s six major food banks and their network of 793 food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters for the purchase of healthy foods, with an emphasis on buying produce from New Jersey farmers.
In addition, New Jersey administers several programs and services that provide assistance, including the website www.EndHungerNJ.org, which serves as a resource on state and community programs related to hunger. Information on senior food programs, school nutrition programs and volunteerism are included. In addition, the site has a database that enables people to search by county for the nearest soup kitchen or food pantry. It also has links to ways to contribute whether finding time to volunteer or making a donation.
The Departments of Human Services (DHS), Health and Senior Services (DHSS) and Agriculture (NJDA) work to provide access to healthy foods for residents who are hungry. The New Jersey Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (NJ SNAP), operated through DHS, is a safety net that supports low-income individuals, families and seniors by enhancing their food budget so that they can buy the groceries they need to stay healthy. NJ SNAP works with each of New Jersey’s 21 county boards of social services to enroll qualified participants. Currently about 780,000 New Jersey residents participate in the program.
DHSS also makes providing food resources to people who are food insecure a priority. The Department’s Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides access to healthy food for more than 186,000 low-income women, infants and children up to age 5 each month. The program allows qualified individuals to buy healthy foods at authorized retail stores throughout the state. The program also provides nutrition assessment and education, breastfeeding support and referrals to local health and human service providers.
DHSS continues to provide healthy eating guidance in urban areas where access to healthy food can be limited. The WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program and The Seniors Farmer Market Nutrition Program provide $20 in checks that can be redeemed at 148 Community Farmers Markets throughout the state, including urban areas such as Newark, Camden and Paterson. The two programs assisted over 106,000 low-income individuals buy healthy fruits and vegetables this past year.
In addition to the SFPP, the NJDA administers the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which distributes United States Department of Agriculture-donated foods to the state’s food banks to feed low-income families. NJDA also coordinates the free and reduced price school lunch program to make sure children in need are getting a healthy meal during the school day.
While these programs are critical to ensuring that every New Jersey resident has access to food each day, much more needs to be done; and it is. Through creative solutions, innovative ideas are being explored and implemented.
For example, the Food bank of South Jersey is bringing food directly to those in need through the Hope Mobile, a tractor trailer that holds 45,000 pounds of food and also provides cooking classes, nutrition education, food stamp outreach and other services to improve nutrition and self-reliance. The Hope Mobile distributes to 15 sites monthly throughout Camden, Gloucester, Burlington and Salem Counties and reaches more than 21,000 families faced with food insecurity issues.
Another growing movement taking root in New Jersey is community restaurants, where diners are asked to pay what they can afford for a fixed menu of healthy, locally grown meals. People who do not have the means to pay can earn vouchers for their meals by working at the restaurant. This restaurant model offers more than just sustenance to people who are food insecure. It offers a philosophy of inclusion, esteem and support to the entire community.
In New Brunswick, A Better World Café opened in 2009. It was the first community restaurant in New Jersey. The Café serves lunch and dinner 5 days a week and offers complimentary meals for people who can’t pay, as well as menu items where patrons can pay the suggested price or volunteer time in exchange for a meal. The restaurant’s menu focuses on simple, healthy, locally grown food including soups, breads, salads sandwiches and desserts.
And more recently, New Jersey’s own Jon Bon Jovi opened a community restaurant in Red Bank that boasts a fine-dining menu with healthy and nutritious foods. The restaurant, JBJ Soul Kitchen, offers patrons mixed green salads, gumbo and vegetarian chili, roasted chicken, grilled pork chops and BBQ-grilled salmon.
State programs, community restaurants, individuals who volunteer their time at local soup kitchens or food banks are all making an impact on reducing hunger in New Jersey.
We encourage everyone to eat healthy during the holidays. In the spirit of the season, please consider contributing to a food drive at work, at your children’s school or your place of worship or volunteering or making a donation to a soup kitchen. And, New Jersey residents have the opportunity to make a donation to the Community Food Pantry Fund through a convenient check-off on state income tax forms.
You don’t have to be a rock star to make a difference—everyone can help by volunteering time or contributing a donation. Please visit www.EndHungerNJ.org to find an organization that you want to help.
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