As Published in The Courier-Post | Written by Carly Q. Romalino | Published 11:10 a.m. ET Dec. 22, 2017 — Grocery shopping isn’t always pleasant. It’s expensive. It takes time. And hauling groceries home is a bear.
But if you drove to the grocery store, selected fresh foods and swiped your card at the check out counter, you’re immensely lucky.
A person behind you in line at your neighborhood supermarket might have scraped together cash for the bill, and sacrificed on quality and nutritional value with the items in their cart. They might be limited in how much they can stock up on because they rode a bike to the store, walked or are taking the bus home. This shopping trip might have been the first time in weeks they’ve scored a ride to a market with fresh produce.
In spite of discount supermarkets opening throughout the region, food access remains an issue in major tracts of South Jersey.
The tracts — where low income households are more than a mile from markets selling fresh produce — are considered food deserts. And they’re in your backyard.
Based on U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the Food Bank of South Jersey designated 21 regions in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties as food deserts, according to the food bank’s president Val Traore.
A food desert is a one- to five-mile radius in which low income and minority residents have “no reliable places for people to go and get basic foods,” according to Traore.
On the food bank’s list is Paulsboro, Gloucester City, Newfield, and parts of Pennsauken, Bellmawr, Glassboro, Pennsville, Penns Grove, Winslow Township, and uniquely, Leisuretowne — a community of people 55 and older.
The Food Bank of South Jersey has committed to providing one million extra pounds of food annually to the 21 food deserts in the region it identified.
In Leisuretowne, a retirement village in Southampton Township, two-thirds of the working-class retirees are older than 65 with a median household income of $30,000.
The closet market is more than seven miles from the heart of the retirement village, where 2.5 percent of the population is below poverty, according to the food bank president.
“Food deserts become that as a combination of the economy of that area,” Traore explained.
Areas with high unemployment and few opportunities become less profitable for grocery stores. The chain stores can’t realize their profit goals, and shut down.
“When basic services like a reliable food source start to pull out, that’s when you start to see food deserts,” Traore said.
Other basic services begin to decline, like education and housing, she noted.
“Businesses will not take the chance to come in to a declining community,” the president explained.
“What you’re left with is the very best a community can get — corner stores. And you don’t get the very best in them.”
Corner stores provide a service, but prices on staples are often high, and the offerings lack fresh produce.
Accessibility and affordability go hand in hand, the food bank president said.
“If the closest grocery store to you that is affordable is seven miles away, and you don’t have a car and there is no public bus that can take you there, now you’re sitting in a food desert,” Traore explained.
“Everybody wants to be healthy. But we all can’t afford it.”
In Atlantic City — where corner stores are king — The Community Food Bank of New Jersey has launched an initiative to help households facing serious diet-related disease.
The Food Bank of South Jersey covers Burlington to Salem counties. The Community Food Bank covers the rest of the state — 17 counties.
“We see households disproportionately dealing with metabolic syndrome — coronary heart disease and hypertension,” said South Jersey branch vice president Rich Uniacke.
The Atlantic City program, a partnership with AtlantiCare, focuses on caring for diabetes. The program is modeled after Geisinger Health’s Fresh Food Pharmacy program in Shamokin, Pennsylvania.
The healthcare provider identifies its low income patients with diabetes needing food assistance. When the Atlantic City program starts in 2018, AtlantiCare will send its patients opting in to the program to the Pantry at the Plex.
The Community Food Bank provides the entire family of a diabetic patient with boxes of fresh produce, education about diabetes, and recipes and produce preparation directions that are culturally-focused, Uniacke explained.
“We definitely want the household to be healthy,” the vice president said.
“If you have diabetes in your household, it’s very possible others have it or are on the road to it … They are going to have significantly greater odds for eating healthier if the whole family is eating together.”
The Food Bank of South Jersey brings produce “markets” into its designated food desert areas with its Hope Mobile. Areas like Glassboro, in which there are two discount markets and a ShopRite market, still have gaps in food access in parts of the borough that are more than a mile from the Aldi or Save-A-Lot stores, according to Traore.
Once the fresh foods and nutrient-dense produce are in their hands, the Food Bank of South Jersey offers 4- to 6-week courses on how to prepare it.
“The issue in our minds is not food deserts,” Traore said.
“The issue is people do not have the economic opportunities to take care of themselves. We want to help people find sustainable ways to improve their lives.”
Carly Q. Romalino: @carlyqromalino; 856-486-2476; firstname.lastname@example.org
At a glance
For more than a decade, the Courier-Post has joined with our community to help fight hunger in our region.
Feed Our Neighbors, our holiday food drive, runs through Tuesday, Jan. 2.
Drop off nonperishable food items in our lobby at 301 Cuthbert Blvd. in Cherry Hill, across from Camden Catholic High School, on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (excluding holidays).
All donations will be transported to the Food Bank throughout the month, to help it meet holiday needs and restock empty shelves.
For more information about fighting hunger in South Jersey, as well as starting your own food drive or becoming a volunteer, visit foodbanksj.org