When One of Us is Hungry, We Are All Hungry: The Lesson of COVID-19 for South Jersey

This time, hunger is hitting home in South Jersey.

By Fred C. Wasiak, President & CEO
Food Bank of South Jersey @foodbanksj 

This time it is someone we know, a family member, a friend, or a neighbor. The impact of COVID-19 on our communities has been devastating, especially when it comes to the loss of jobs and income. Unemployment. Financial crisis. Socio-economic inequities. Transportation obstacles. Access to healthy and nutritious food. All are part of the expansive and relentless toll this crisis has taken on South Jersey has been nothing short of catastrophic, causing families to choose between buying food, paying rent, or finding health insurance all while trying to avoid contracting COVID-19.

Never before have we experienced the dual challenges of a pandemic and economic paralysis.

The numbers are stark over 1.54 million NJ workers filed unemployment claims since mid-March, less than half are back to work today. The unemployment rate in July was 13.8, the second highest in nation, percent soaring well above the 3.3 percent rate last year.

In the Food Bank of South Jersey’s (FBSJ) four-county service area (Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties) there are nearly 80,000 residents receiving unemployment benefits – three times as many as were unemployed in March. This number doesn’t include the thousands that are not eligible for unemployment due to low earnings or other reasons. That means there are more likely about 110,000 of our neighbors out of work and struggling to meet the basic needs for themselves and their families.

It is deeply poignant that during Hunger Action Month, so many of our neighbors are suffering from food insecurity. We have all seen the news stories of long lines and people waiting hours to get food from food banks across the country.

Between March and July FBSJ distributed just over 9 million pounds of food, that is more than 2.5 million more pounds than in 2019 – if there is any question as to need these numbers confirm it. In August we saw another spike in need as the unemployed lost the $600 supplemental unemployment benefit. Families that were squeezing by with the extra money for everyday expenses, are faced with the sudden loss of employer sponsored health insurance. They now find themselves losing over half of their income on average. Without that extra income we expect the need to grow over the coming months.

Unlike other economic downturns, this one has impacted everyone.

Hardly anyone in the state is not related to or knows at least one person that lost their jobs during the pandemic. The hardship faced across the spectrum of middle class and low income families was at least partially shared with some upper middle class workers. However, the job loss impact has been disproportionately hard on those least able to afford it. The initial job losses hit those in service industries like restaurants and hotels or those that could not work from home were hit the hardest. These jobs are predominately lower wage Many of the families of these workers are already living paycheck to paycheck and have little if any savings. Many are also from communities of color where pervasive social and economic inequities create crippling health, education and employment challenges. These inequities are now more exposed due to the impact of COVID-19 and an increased public awareness of the challenges faced by our neighbors in low-income neighborhoods.

The lack of access to a grocery store or fresh healthy food is not new to the City of Camden or Salem City, where the lack of food access is most acutely felt in our region. Residents in these “food deserts” are sadly accustomed to the lack of options, short of food bank distributions, which are a health and wellness mainstay for families.

Still, we all saw how difficult interruptions in the food supply were even for the brief time we experienced massive shortages in our local grocery stores. Imagine being limited in what you can buy, when you can buy it – and whether or not you can find it at all, as a regular way of life. Imagine every time you shopped for groceries, you were at an immediate disadvantage, facing lack of options and the subsequent less healthy, yet affordable, meal alternatives all too prevalent. This lack of healthy food options leads to residents making less healthy food decisions based on what is available. The potential for long-term health issues from the pandemic don’t stop at COVID-19, but also extend to conditions like Type 2 Diabetes and high blood pressure brought on by diet.

It is in this situation where FBSJ and its sister Feeding America network of more than 200 national food banks are making a difference.

Nationwide food banks are serving on average 60% more people. That is in addition to serving the large number of our neighbors that suffer from long-term food insecurity. FBSJ knows South Jersey is facing a long-term increase in food insecurity. Our own models show we will likely be serving as many 45-50% more people, in 16 months, at the end of 2021, then we were before the pandemic. The continued partnerships we have with our communities, towns, counties and the state are vital. Long after the COVID-19 headlines diminish and the news cameras stop capturing our long food distribution lines, the challenge to feed South Jersey will remain with us.

This challenge will command a continued resilience and resolve to feed our neighbors, plan for the next catastrophic disruption – and strengthen South Jersey to face a future that is sustainable, healthy and united in the resolve that hunger has no home in South Jersey.

For more information, visit foodbanksj.org and follow the Food Bank of South Jersey on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram @foodbanksj.