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Op-Ed: NJ’s congressional delegation must help the rising numbers of New Jerseyans facing hunger


L to R: Fred Wasiak, president and CEO, Food Bank of South Jersey; Elizabeth McCarthy, president and CEO, Community FoodBank of New Jersey; Triada Stampas, president and CEO, Fulfill; Bernie Flynn, CEO, Mercer Street Friends and Mark Valli, CEO, Norwescap

“If I tell you that I’m hungry, then I’m hungry.”

This simple sentiment, expressed by one of our neighbors, is one we unfortunately hear more and more. You may have thought that the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — a time of lockdowns and mass unemployment — was also the peak for food insecurity in our state. But a new report released by Feeding America paints a far different picture.

The report, which provides analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture  food insecurity data at the state and local level through 2022, shows the number of our New Jersey neighbors facing hunger is rising — a 22% increase from 2021 to 2022, and a 51% increase from the start of the pandemic in 2020. By 2022, 10.7% of Garden State residents were struggling with food insecurity. Let that sink in: In one of the wealthiest states in America, more than 1 in 10 people can’t consistently afford the food they need for themselves and their families to thrive.

As the leaders of New Jersey’s food banks, which serve all 21 counties, we have been bearing witness to this harsh truth in real time. We are the main providers of food for hundreds of food pantries, soup kitchens and other community food distribution sites, and we have seen reliance on this charitable food distribution network grow to unprecedented levels.

In fact, our numbers suggest that 2022 may not even be the high-water mark for food insecurity. Since then, the utilization of food pantries in New Jersey has climbed 60%.

When we look at this data, two important conclusions stand out:

Support for the charitable food distribution network must be sustained. Last year, we collectively distributed enough food for more than 120 million meals. Food banks rely on a combination of private donations and government resources to make this happen, and because the need has grown, we are increasingly turning to large-scale, wholesale purchases of the food items most needed by the individuals and families we serve.

Under the leadership of Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Nicholas Scutari and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, the state has been a vital source of support for food banks, so we can make these needed food purchases. We are grateful that the governor included this item in his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. As he and our legislators work to finalize the state budget in the coming days, we urge them to ensure this funding remains in the adopted fiscal year 2025 budget.

Our public policy solutions to end hunger must be strengthened and protected. It is no coincidence that food insecurity rates rose in 2022, as pandemic relief measures such as stimulus payments, advanced child tax credit payments and enhanced unemployment benefits were sunsetting, and costs of basic needs began to rise. It is remarkable to realize that when a public health crisis was upending our entire economy, these policy measures held the predicted surge of food insecurity at bay. If we care about ending hunger, this is a lesson we must honor.

Help from government

In New Jersey, we have had strong leadership in Coughlin, who has set his sights on ending food insecurity in our state. The Assembly speaker has championed such measures as expanding access to free school meals and increasing the minimum SNAP benefit.

We urge our congressional delegation to match this commitment at the federal level: This year, Congress can have a major impact on food security in the Farm Bill, which is now up for reauthorization.

The Farm Bill sets policy and resources for SNAP, the country’s first line of defense against hunger, and the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides food and funds to food banks. The opportunity to make improvements comes only once every five years.

Instead of improvements, however, the recent proposal put forth in the House of Representatives would mean a reduction in benefits to every SNAP participant, as well as long-term cuts to the Emergency Food Assistance Program. We urge our congressional delegation to use its influence — and its votes — to strongly oppose this bill and instead to work with us to expand access and increase resources in both of these critical programs.

Our neighbors facing hunger are asking us to listen. Food banks, policymakers and our community-based partners working together can help make sure New Jersey is a state where everyone thrives. We must not let them down.


Original piece from NJ Spotlight
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