By Erin Delmore
“Even as the economy has progressed and gotten better, and people have gone back to work, hunger is still a really prevalent problem,” said Diane Riley, director of advocacy for the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.
More than 1 million people in New Jersey don’t get enough food to eat on a daily basis, a startling reality in one of the wealthiest states in the nation.
“It might be someone who sits next to them at their office, who lives next to them in their neighborhood. I don’t think people have a good feel for who it touches,” said Faye Kuhn, director of volunteer services for the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.
Almost 12 percent of New Jerseyans — 17 percent of our children — go hungry. We’re still better than the rest of the nation, but that stats are barely improving.
“The people coming to pantries are actually saying more and more that they’re choosing between other things and food. So they’re choosing to pay the rent, to go to the doctor, get their medicine, to pay the utility bills, transportation, especially in New Jersey, you kinda need a car to get around and to get to that job,” Riley said.
A report by the national nonprofit Feeding America measured the “food insecurity” rate — that is, the number of people who don’t have enough food to lead healthy lives. While no county was spared, the report found highest rates of hunger in New Jersey’s four southern-most counties, the very highest in Essex County. This food bank services Essex’s nearly 150,000 hungry residents.
The Community FoodBank headquarters in Hillside is the size of five football fields. Last year, it distributed nearly 45 million pounds of food to shelters, pantries and soup kitchens across the state.
More than 40,000 volunteers pass through its doors each year. Their work is especially important in the summer when kids do without free and reduced-price school lunches. Only 19 percent of eligible kids take part in the state’s summer meals program. Riley says an increasing number of seniors are using the food bank’s services.
“They’re like, I’ve worked all my life how’d I get here? I mean I can’t afford pork chops. I can’t afford those meals. And they’re surprised and saddened by that. And they’re also really hesitant to sign up for programs like SNAP or food stamps because that means they’re poor. And they don’t think of themselves that way,” Riley said.
A report by the food bank shows nearly a quarter of New Jerseyans eligible for food stamps don’t participate in the program.