NEW JERSEY — Sometimes hunger hides in plain sight.
Thanks to supply chain woes caused by the coronavirus pandemic, many New Jersey residents have found themselves returning from trips to the grocery store without key items over the past year: vegetables, fruits and freshly prepared, healthy meals. But that’s just a small taste of what it’s like to live in a “food desert.”
On Tuesday, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) released a ranked list of 50 proposed food deserts across the state, where residents have been struggling to find healthy eating options long before the pandemic began (see it below).
The communities on the list are all facing a different combination of problems. Some lack enough healthy options at local supermarkets. Others are plagued by an oversaturation of fast food restaurants. And some simply don’t have any way for people without cars to get to the grocery store in the first place. But they all have something in common, advocates say.
They deserve better.
Hopefully, a massive wave of state funding will help to turn things around, NJEDA officials said. Over the next several years, an estimated $240 million in funds will be made available to communities on the list through the Food Desert Relief Act, which is part of the Economic Recovery Act signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy in January 2021. Read More: Relief In The Works For 'Food Deserts,' Food Insecurity In NJ
Here’s how it will work, officials said:
“The Food Desert Relief Act directs the NJEDA to address the food security needs of communities across New Jersey by providing up to $40 million per year for six years in tax credits, loans, grants and/or technical assistance to increase access to nutritious foods and develop new approaches to alleviate food deserts. The act strives to facilitate development, construction, and sustainable operations of new supermarkets and grocery stores within designated Food Desert Communities. It also aims to strengthen existing community assets by arming them with the necessary equipment and infrastructure to provide healthier food options. Additionally, it is designed to help food retailers respond to the shift to e-commerce, including for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).”
There is an urgent need for relief, statistics show. According to recent data from the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, 800,000 New Jersey residents face hunger every day. Feeding America noted that 192,580 New Jersey children – about one in 10 – face hunger. And the number of individuals receiving NJ SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) rose more than 15 percent, from 769,331 in September 2020 to 887,467 in September 2021, according to data from the New Jersey Department of Human Services.
“We have an obligation as state leaders, and as human beings, to ensure that no New Jerseyan goes to bed hungry, regardless of their socioeconomic status,” Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said.
“By crafting one of the most comprehensive food desert designations in the country, we are leading the nation in taking necessary steps to eradicate food deserts and remove the barriers keeping our state’s residents from accessing nutritious food,” Oliver added.
“Far too often, hunger hides in plain sight,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin agreed, calling the NJEDA’s draft list an “important step” in the state’s battle against food insecurity.
10 percent of New Jersey residents live nowhere near a supermarket. Through the Food Desert Relief program we have been hard at work to change that reality and today @NewJerseyEDA released its draft list of 50 designated food deserts where need is high. https://t.co/vHcfBrprC2
— Speaker Craig J. Coughlin (@SpeakerCoughlin) January 4, 2022
See the proposed food deserts below, in ranked order (an asterisk * means that the whole municipality is included). See the full list with ranking scores here. See an interactive online map with the proposed locations here.
1 - North, Central and South Camden/Woodlynne*
2 - Atlantic City/Ventnor
3 - Newark South
4 - Newark West
5 - Paterson South
6 - Camden East/Pennsauken
7 - Newark East
8 - Newark North and Central
9 - Passaic City
10 - Salem City*
11 - Paterson North
12 - Bridgeton/Fairfield Twp/Lawrence Twp*
13 - New Brunswick City
14 - Trenton City
15 - Elizabeth East
16 - Asbury Park City
17 - Jersey City South
18 - Penns Grove*/Carneys Point*
19 - Perth Amboy City
20 - Irvington Township
21 - Elizabeth West
22 - Union City
23 - Lindenwold/Clementon*
24 - Lakewood North
25 - Pleasantville/Absecon
26 - Red Bank Borough
27 - East Orange City
28 - Orange/West Orange/Montclair
29 - North Bergen/West New York/Guttenberg
30 - Long Branch City
31 - Jersey City North
32 - Jersey City Central
33 - Woodbine Borough*
34 - Millville/Commercial Twp*
35 - Keansburg Borough*
36 - Prospect Park/Haledon/Hawthorne
37 - Paulsboro Borough
38 - Lakewood South
39 - Fairview Borough
40 - Linden/Roselle
41 - Egg Harbor City*
42 - Burlington City
43 - Vineland City
44 - Plainfield City
45 - Phillipsburg Town
46 - Bayonne City
47 - Dover Town
48 - Bound Brook Borough
49 - High Bridge Borough
50 - Montague Township*
What makes up a “food desert,” anyway? See the NJEDA’s full methodology here.
According to the agency, here are some of the factors that went into making their list: poverty, CDC Modified Retail Food Environment Index, USDA Low Access Score, supermarket access, SNAP enrollment, vehicle access, 2020 Municipal Revitalization Index Score, unemployment rate, obesity rate, density (population).
The NJEDA also took other factors into consideration, including:
Access to unhealthy food retailers
Income relative to cost of living
2016-18 Municipal Violent Crime Rate
Percentage of households with internet access
Access to transportation
Race and ethnicity
Single mother percentages of households
Percent of students with free or reduced-price lunch
Residents and small business owners aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from the massive wave of funding, officials said. According to New Jersey Department of Agriculture Secretary Douglas Fisher, it will also give a boost to local farmers.
“Food insecurity is an ongoing crisis, and gathering public input to solidify the Food Desert Communities designations will help connect residents facing hunger with fresh farm products grown and produced at many of New Jersey’s 10,000 farms,” Fisher said.
NJEDA officials said anyone who wants to provide feedback on the proposed list can visit https://www.njeda.com/program-specific-feedback to offer input before Feb. 4. The NJEDA will also host listening sessions on Jan. 12 (register here) and Jan. 13 (register here) to solicit stakeholder input.
Tim Sullivan, CEO of the NJEDA, said the wave of food desert funding is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing hunger in New Jersey. Other recent efforts have included:
SUSTAIN AND SERVE – “The NJEDA launched the innovative Sustain & Serve NJ program early last year. Sustain & Serve NJ grew from a $2 million pilot program designed to support New Jersey’s restaurant industry and strengthen food security into a $45 million initiative on track to support the purchase of 4.5 million nutritious meals from over 400 restaurants in all 21 counties. The meals are purchased, then distributed for free to residents throughout the state. To ensure the program benefits New Jersey’s small restaurants, participating establishments must have 50 or fewer employees.”
FEDERAL FUNDING – “In November, the NJDA announced that $10 million in American Rescue Funds were being provided to community food banks throughout the state.”
BREAKING: We've released a draft list of NJ Food Desert Communities. The Food Desert Relief Act allocates up to $240M for designated communities & we're seeking input on the proposed list. Provide written feedback or attend an upcoming listening session. https://t.co/22Ac1FYNsC pic.twitter.com/FuamsoN79h
— New Jersey EDA (@NewJerseyEDA) January 4, 2022
Send news tips and correction requests to firstname.lastname@example.org