By Ciera Gaither
The most recent Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement (CPS FSS) reported that 10.2% of American households are food insecure, impacting more than 30 million people. In comparison, 8% of New Jersey residents experienced food insecurity in 2020. Although the prevalence of food insecurity in New Jersey is below the national average, there is geographic variation across the state. Southern counties have the highest rates, with 16.2% in Atlantic County, while Hunterdon County reported the lowest rate of 8.2%. As of 2022, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) and the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs identified fifty food desert communities (FDCs) across the state.
Several programs have been implemented to address food insecurity throughout Governor Murphy’s administration, many of which were enacted in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasing access to food and economic development are two priorities of the Food Desert Relief Act, which provides tax credits to build and maintain grocery stores in recognized FDCs. In April 2023, the NJEDA Board approved the distribution of $50 million toward this program. New Jersey reached another milestone later in August through the Sustain and Serve program. Approaching the end of phase three, this $57 million program served more than five million meals purchased from local restaurants and distributed to food-insecure residents.
New Jersey also raised the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) monthly minimum, which went into effect on March 1, 2023. State policymakers advocated for increased SNAP benefits after President Biden signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act in 2023, which ended SNAP emergency allotment (EA) and would have reduced the monthly minimum to $23. By enacting the SNAP Minimum Benefit Program bill, the state ensured that all NJ SNAP beneficiaries would receive a minimum of $95 in monthly benefits per household. This is particularly necessary considering food prices are expected to increase by 5.8% this year.
Although New Jersey has several programs to address food insecurity, studies conducted by Hunger Free New Jersey and the Food Research Action Center (FRAC) found disparities in SNAP participation, particularly among older adults. In 2018, only 56% of adults over 60 eligible for SNAP received benefits, a rate significantly lower than the overall participation (81%). Submitting applications online and navigating the interview process can be barriers to receiving benefits. Additionally, perceptions of low monthly benefits may impact an individual’s decision to apply. Despite participation in this program, SNAP recipients may be unfamiliar with participating locations and food benefits.
Moving forward, clinical and community partnerships should be prioritized to reduce food insecurity. One 2017 study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explored screening methods for food insecurity in healthcare settings and connection to resources. For example, the Hunger Vital Sign is a two-question self-reported survey measuring food insecurity in children and adults. Researchers found more than half of healthcare providers that used screening tools for food insecurity intervened by referring their patients to food pantries, assisting with applications for government programs, assigning a case manager, or providing nutrition education to manage chronic conditions. Thus, preventing food insecurity will require the collaboration of state policymakers, community leaders, and healthcare providers.
Ciera Gaither is an undergraduate student in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Planning and Policy at Rutgers University and she is working towards a bachelor’s degree in Public Health. Ciera was also a part of the NJSPL’s 2023 Summer Internship Program.