Four bills that would increase state food benefits, improve recipient information, and streamline state efforts to address food insecurity are now waiting for Gov. Phil Murphy to enact them as New Jersey exits of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bills are a response to an estimated 56% increase in the number of New Jerseyans who are food insecure – that is, those who do not have constant access to nutritious and affordable food – since before the pandemic.
The Community Food Bank of New Jersey, the state’s largest, estimates that 1.2 million people, including 400,000 children, are now food insecure. This number is not expected to drop quickly during the economic recovery, as some people grapple with debts incurred during the pandemic, and others made redundant last year have not been able to find work as well-paying as their previous jobs. .
The bills have been approved by the state’s five food banks, which have fed up to 58% more people since the pandemic began in March 2020 than before.
“By targeting state resources and action on high-impact programs that effectively address food insecurity, these bills will enable our state to recover stronger than ever from the food crisis triggered by the pandemic, “the food banks said in a statement. letter to legislators June 16.
Higher demand, higher costs
A higher demand for food aid has led to a sharp increase in the amount of food distributed by food banks and the cost of purchasing food during the pandemic. The Food Bank of South Jersey, for example, increased its food budget last year by about 350% from pre-pandemic levels while Norwescap, which serves the low-income population of Northwestern New Jersey, provided 500,000 pounds of food in 2020, a 25% increase from 2019.
Two of the invoices (A-5882 and A-5883) would provide a state supplement of 10 cents per meal to federal programs that provide food when schools are closed during the summer, as well as breakfast during the school year.
Another invoice (A-5880) would create a mobile phone application for beneficiaries of Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. The software would allow users to check the status of their requests; review their electronic benefit card balances and download required documents, among other services.
Lawmakers also gave their final approval on June 24 to A-5884 that a food insecurity advocate be appointed by the governor to coordinate the work of state departments which are currently dealing with different aspects of the issue.
Appoint a special state advocate?
The lawyer’s responsibilities would include setting up a 24-hour hunger hotline; identify unmet food insecure service needs and help food banks reduce food waste.
“The state’s food insecurity programs currently operate in silos and in some cases they may all cover the same families, but not all eligible families are enrolled in every program,” reads the wording of the bill. .
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) said he sponsored three of the bills due to the surge in food insecurity during the pandemic and the continuing challenge even as the state reopens.
“We need to get back on track to help defeat this insidious enemy,” he said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News. “It’s something we can all understand because it resonates with people. This is something we can support when our neighbors and friends are hungry.
Coughlin said he hopes the economy will “come back” as the pandemic recedes and food insecurity diminishes with it, but the reality is that high demand for food aid will persist for some time, as the food banks provide.
“You lost your job, you haven’t worked for a while, you probably have unpaid rent or mortgage and utility bills that you haven’t been able to pay, and while you you come out of a hole, you can come and get food aid, ”he said. Coughlin said he expects Murphy to sign the invoices.
Experience shows that hunger persists long after a recession officially ends, which means higher demand should be expected, said Fred Wasiak, chairman of the Food Bank of South Jersey, which serves four counties. After the 2007-2009 financial crash, food security rates took nearly a decade to return to pre-recession levels, he said.
Long road back
“We know that an improving economy may not mean a return to food security for those who have accumulated back rent or other debts that will fall due, whose jobs have been cut or who can no longer find. working with hours and wages equivalent to they had before the pandemic, ”Wasiak said.
The app offered for SNAP beneficiaries will help more people receive the benefits they are entitled to, Wasiak said. And he praised the planned supplement of 10 cents per meal in federal diet programs, saying it will help reach more children and potentially provide a greater choice of nutritious foods.
Carlos Rodriguez, president of the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, which serves 15 counties, said all the bills will help reduce food insecurity after his outbreak caused by the pandemic.
“They continue to build a very comprehensive response to the problem of creating food security, especially in a changing period in which we are currently living,” Rodriguez said. “We’re still trying to see how we’ll go from the overwhelming relief and need that we’ve seen over the past six months to what the continuing need will be.”
Rodriguez said he welcomed the proposal to create an app for benefit recipients as “absolutely the right kind of thinking” and said a new state food insecurity advocate would improve coordination between agencies and with food banks.
“The need we see now is not going to go away overnight,” Rodriguez said. “It will continue to evolve as the benefits change. We strive to be as responsive as possible.