Hunger in New Jersey
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
It is estimated that 1 in 6 persons (a total of 430,000) in New Jersey will experience food insecurity in the next year. COVID-19 has created mass unemployment in New Jersey and around the country. When people must juggle competing needs for housing, healthcare, and basic needs, sacrificing food is often the result. The increase in hunger correlates directly with the cost of basic needs.
Food insecurity affects New Jersey’s population unequally. Nearly half of food insecure families live in Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Ocean and Atlantic Counties. The Dept. of Labor reports that these workers are largely people of color and women. Communities of color are being hit hardest; it is estimated that 1 in 4 families of color are experiencing food insecurity in New Jersey. Across the state, families with children are more likely to not have enough to eat.
One of the reasons for the disparity in food insecurity is that during the great recession low-wage, service sector jobs were the first to return; many individuals who lost jobs during the recession ended up reemployed in jobs with fewer hours and lower wages than the jobs they lost. This reality has contributed to the increased distress of many New Jersey households. The COVID-19 crisis, with its negative effect on job security, has only furthered these problems.
Emergency food and food banks are important defenses against hunger and nearly 90% of all Lutheran congregations participate in some type of food ministry. Although our state spent $20 million from the Federal Cares Act to help provide additional funding for food banks, this money will be spent by the end of 2020, leaving a large gap in 2021. We know that there are more than 1,400 food pantries, soup kitchens, and community based food programs that receive some (or all) of their food from the state food banks. There are countless more faith based food distributions centers that operate solely on donations from their local communities. All of our emergency food assistance centers will struggle in 2021 without additional resources.
It is no exaggeration to say that federal and state assistance through enhanced federal unemployment benefits and other assistance received from the CARES Act has been a lifeline for struggling families. Now as this assistance comes to an end, we must advocate for additional federal and state assistance for families and businesses until the pandemic is over.
So, what can we do?
Although emergency food is important, it is most effective when it acts as a complement to robust safety net supports such as SNAP. Enrolling an eligible household in SNAP is one of the best ways of reducing hunger. Unfortunately, New Jersey SNAP participation rates lag well behind the national average. (We are ranked at 33rd in the nation). We must intentionally address the barriers to SNAP enrollment over the next few months.
New Jersey’s online application system is difficult to use, especially for submitting supporting documentation. New Jersey must institute an updated online application system with a more user-friendly interface that enables applicants to upload documentation. While this system is being developed, all county welfare agencies should accept supporting documents via e-mail. The state should also explore the possibility of allowing applicants to apply over the phone.
The elderly are among the most underserved population and among the most needy. Difficulty in completing applications and providing all necessary documentation is a major barrier to enrollment for older residents, as is the recertification process.
Immigrant families should also be educated about SNAP. We need to advocate that DHS prepare and widely distribute easy-to-understand flyers that clearly explain the expanded public charge rule, including which type of immigrants are most likely to be affected by it (i.e. the rule does not apply to green card holders).
Finally, customer service needs to be improved at county welfare offices. SNAP applicants frequently face difficulty reaching staff at the county welfare offices, which are responsible for processing the applications. Customer service varies greatly from county to county, which may account for some of the variations in SNAP participation.
Have a well informed person available at all food distribution events to help enroll eligible families in SNAP. Encourage families and seniors about enrolling in SNAP.
Advocate to state legislators and the governor’s office for additional support for emergency food funds for 2021.
Reach out to the governor’s office, insisting that DHS develop and distribute a flyer for all immigrant families on SNAP participation in multiple languages.
Speak to County officials about your County Welfare Office. Concerns should be raised about the backlog in applications for SNAP and customer service for all applicants.
Email or call your federal representative insisting that another round of assistance be agreed upon for families and business who are struggling.
Support EITC expansion now!
Another way to bolster emergency food resources is to support efforts to protect workers. When economic insecurity is addressed, workers are able to use their wages to provide food for themselves and their families.
In October, Governor Murphy signed an Executive Order to protect vulnerable workers during the COVID-19 health emergency. This EO creates a new mechanism for addressing violations of public health and worker safety laws. It will create a 24-hour “worker rights protections” hotline, deputize COVID-19 safety liaisons to resolve COVID-19 disputes, require essential employers to provide all essential workers with notice of their pandemic protections, mandate training for essential workers and essential employers, and strengthen enforcement of pandemic protection violations.
But more support is needed for those who work so hard and continue to struggle. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a proven program that provides tax credits for low wage workers.
THIS PROGRAM SHOULD BE EXPANDED TO:
Provide eligibility to childless workers ages 18 to 24 years old (A838/S835),
Increase the credit amount from 40 percent to 50 percent of the federal credit over two years (in 2021 and 2022) for all recipients (A841/S836),
Increase the credit amount to 100 percent for all childless workers (A839/S765),
Enable qualifying relatives to be treated as qualifying children (A840/S764), and
Expand the EITC to immigrants who file taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (A4229/S2194).
By reducing barriers to the EITC and increasing the credit
amount, the program could be a stronger tool for addressing economic insecurity and, by extension, food insecurity.
New Jersey Hunger Information
Community FoodBank of New Jersey’s Report, “COVID-19’s Impact on Hunger in New Jersey”:
Hunger Free New Jersey’s Report, “Missed Dollars, Bare Cupboards: Improving SNAP Participation in New Jersey”:
COVID-19 Food Insecurity in the United States
Food Research and Action Center’s Report, “Not Enough to Eat: COVID-19 Deepens America’s Hunger Crisis”:
“About 14 Million Children in the U.S. Are Not Getting Enough to Eat,” Brookings:
“How Can We Do a Better Job of Getting Meals to Young Children During the Pandemic?” Urban Institute:
"Nearly 60 Percent Increase in Older Adult Food Insecurity During COVID-19: Federal Action on SNAP Needed Now” Food Research & Action Center:
Food Research and Action Center’s Report, “Hunger Doesn't Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report”:
"For the Unemployed, Rising Grocery Prices Strain Budgets Even More” Washington Post:
"An Hour of Advocacy"
Interested in advocating for food security in New Jersey? Join our monthly Zoom meeting by registering here.
The Hunger Issue Table meets at 5:30 PM on the third Monday of every month.