Food Access and Insecurity

Historically, malnutrition and hunger have almost always been seen as an issue within both the nation and New Jersey. However, over the past decade new focus has been given to addressing why this issue effects entire generations and regions. One of the greatest factors recognized is assessing the proximity of healthy food to a neighborhood, and its citizen’s ability to acquire it. All too often the realization has been that many low income neighborhoods and boroughs have little to no access to healthy food vendors in their area. This often leaves inferior alternatives such as corner stores, bodegas, and other junk-food retailers as the only remaining options. While surviving off of a diet from places like these is possible, the ability to develop and grow is stunted in the best of cases, and next to impossible in the worst.

Addressing the issue of food access is not only important because it can solve immediate issue for families and individuals, but because it can also ensure that a child develops into the best adult that they can be. Like nearly everything else involving healthy homes, food access is one that directly harms children and elderly the most, with the solutions offering to aid them the most.

Effects of the Issue

Nutrition plays an important role in pregnancy and infancy as these are the critical periods of brain formation that will serve as a foundation for the development of cognitive, motor and socio-emotional skills throughout life. Nutrient inadequacy during these periods may compromise the structural development of the brain.” – US National Library of Medicine

The lack of nutrition that living in a food desert can cause has a list of negative effects. While fatigue and low amounts of energy are well known effects of poor nutrition, the extremely young and elderly suffer the most from its effects. It is no secret that a child’s first years are the most crucial to its mental and physical development, because of this the importance of all NJ residents having access to healthy and nutritious foods is that much greater.

Across the board, the immune system of both children and adults also tends to suffer under a diet with poor nutrition. Those without access to foods like fresh produce and meats are likely to fall ill much more frequently than those who receive the nutrients they need through their diet. Addressing the issue of food deserts can serve to both make the people within them healthier, and allow their children to have the greatest potential possible for growing into healthy and productive adults.

Food Deserts in New Jersey

Map of food deserts in New Jersey based off of information gathered in 2014.

Food deserts are not a problem limited only to one city in New Jersey, or even one environment. Camden, Newark, and Paterson are extremely different in nature to a region like Mauricetown and much of southern Cumberland County, however, the consequences of living in a food desert are universal. No matter where in the state, urban, rural, north, or south, the effects of poor nutrition and a lack of access to foods with proper amounts causes everyone affected to miss out on their maximum potential.

Unfortunately, the bulk of food deserts in New Jersey appear to be in the center and southern areas of the state, with big urban areas making up a large percentage. The city of Camden is one such example where the issue of food accessibility has been an ongoing problem for its residents for over a decade. Much like New Jerseys other cities, Camden has entire sections of its residents a considerable distance from any legitimate healthy food retailers. Due to this, almost the entirety of west Camden is forced to rely on bodegas and corner-stores for their groceries, where a cheesesteak is usually the freshest type of food available.


What is being done?

Although the goal of bridging communities in food deserts with healthy foods is clear, the manner in which it gets done across the state is not always the same. Detailed below are different types of solutions that have been tried and tested national, and more specifically within the state of New Jersey.

Additional Grocery Stores and Supermarkets
One of the most obvious solutions to addressing a community’s difficulty acquiring fresh foods is to open additional grocery stores in an area. This solves the immediate problem of accessing fresh foods and creates a new point of business for the community. Often the largest difficulty in implementing this solution is financial, with the combination of low-priced goods and the need for funding/subsidies being very real factors. Many companies of well-known grocery chains can become reluctant to start operations in areas that they see as low-profit. Regardless, there are many grocery stores that have proven themselves able to directly combat the spread of food deserts by opening new locations in affected areas. Additionally, the opening of a new supermarket also creates a new community center for residents to interact with each other more, a location for community centered events, and employment opportunities for many of the areas citizens.

Examples:

Public-Private Solutions
The use of private-public funds are another method of creating resources to combat food deserts. Often these can take the form of a state or privately funded operations which can seek capital through donations. Local food banks and food pantries are some of the common methods that have proven effective. Additionally, strategies such as summer feeding programs for students have addressed the fact that proper nutrition is a constant and year-round.

Resources:

Examples of Member Involvement:

Arm In Arm operates three food pantries in Mercer County that are aimed at helping to fill some of the financial gaps with food that lower-income residents face. In addition, their home delivery service ensures that up to 150 elderly and housebound residents receive healthy foods with proper nutrition.


Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton
has three separate food pantries in Burlington, Mercer, and Ocean Counties that serve those facing food insecurity. Pre-packed food bags provide 3 meals per day for 3 days for each household member. The organization also offers assistance in the education of SNAP and for help in its enrollment.

La Casa de Don Pedro distributes surplus food and donations to programs participating in the Hunger Relief Initiative. In addition to this, the organization also offers enrollment assistance in SNAP and nutrition workshops to raise awareness on healthy eating habits.

Using the Lafayette Learning Community Garden the Morris Canal Community Development Corporation is able to aid low-income residents in obtaining healthy foods and have their children educated about matters of eating well. Morris Canal CDCs members are firm believers that the act of gardening can nourish the body, mind, and soul, creating a lasting impact across generations that is seen not only in diet, but thought process too.

The New Community Corporation has served thousands of residents in and round Newark with healthy foods and commodities from their emergency food pantry. Starting the 16th of every month, the NCC runs a food distribution program out of the pantry from 10am till 2pm. Periodically the NCC will give out additional food sent from the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.

The Northwest New Jersey Community Action Partnership addresses the issue of food insecurity in multiple ways. Whether this be through their food bank, food surplus giveaways, backpack initiative, or summer food service program. All of these examples are some NORWESCAPs strategies for bridging all members of community with healthy lifestyles.

Community Gardens 
The creation of community gardens is a solution that is arguably the most involving with the locals of an area. These gardens create solutions in more than one context due to the fact that they can both provide more nutritious options to those in food deserts, and also train those involved with skills relating to agriculture and nutrition.

Examples of Member Involvement:

Interfaith Neighbors operate a multitude of healthy food programs that include an urban farm, a café that utilizes produce from said farm, a meals on wheels operation, and a congregate meal program. All of these examples bring the surrounding communty together and educate local residents on how to both grow and prepare healthy foods. 


Ironbound CC is the proud owner of Down Bottom Farms which functions as a community garden that features a “Learning Barn” and an experimental garden known as “Childs Play.” Children and adults are given the opportunity to learn about proper nutrition and healthy foods in a fun and learning-based environment.


Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District is a non-profit that has decided to directly address the areas lack of healthy foods. By integrating urban gardens into current community development projects LPCCD lays the foundations for continued community interaction and gives its residents the tools to better their own lives through healthy foods.