In this most populous and prosperous state, one in five New Jersey children are at risk of going hungry. The nonprofit food bank that serves Ocean and Monmouth Counties is using Health Literacy Month to help families understand and then access healthy foods. Fulfill New Jersey’s Executive Director Carlos Rodriguez spoke with Lyndsay Christian.
Christian: So Carlos, October is Health Literacy Month. What does it mean to be health literate and what is Fulfill New Jersey doing to educate communities across the state?
Rodriguez: So, being healthy means so many different things depending on who you ask. It can mean fitness, it can mean nutrition, it could mean access to health care, and in reality it’s all three of those and much more. And Fulfill really is working in a much broader, comprehensive way to make sure that we are helping those that are most vulnerable to be as literate about health and have as much access to whatever health could mean for them, so in fact they will never go hungry.
Christian: And speaking about hunger, what are we looking at in terms of statistics statewide and the number of people who are considered, what is it, hunger vulnerable? What is the appropriate term?
Rodriguez: The technical term is food insecure. And that simply means that at anytime during the last year, you did not know whether you were able to provide food for your family. And in fact, you may not have been able to provide food for your family at some point. And if you could imagine in a state like New Jersey, with suburban communities that could be described as idyllic for the most part, there are close to a million people and one in five children that are at risk for becoming hungry and suffering from hunger.
Christian: So, what are some of the initiatives underway to help really remedy this problem?
Rodriguez: So, what we do at Fulfill is twofold. Always providing food to take care of the immediate need, but we are working really aggressively to make sure families can take care of that need for themselves. At the end of the day, we want families to have continuous access to nutritious food so that they can live an active and healthy lifestyle. And so that means really understanding why are they hungry and why can’t they access some of the wonderful markets that we have in our state to provide food for themselves.
Christian: I know in Asbury Park, they have an initiative where there’s healthy foods at corner stores like a healthy corner store initiative. Is that becoming more prevalent across the state?
Rodriguez: It is. So, there’s a number of different healthy community initiatives. We are a part of at least two of them and probably three. We are looking specifically in that community to see what that community needs. And in some places, like the Asbury example, it means making sure that there’s physical access to food. Transportation is a challenge for so many throughout New Jersey, especially if you’re low income and have to travel to a just a mile away or half a mile away could be a challenge.
Christian: Carlos, I know that you have been on White House panels, you meet with state legislators to advocate for access to healthy foods. What are some of those conversations you’re having?
Rodriguez: So, some of the things that we talk about is not food. Some of the things that we can be talking about is that financial access that prevents families from getting food. And we really start by creating an awareness on who the New Jerseyans are that are struggling. And one of the most prevalent facts is that many of the families that we’re providing emergency foods for are working families. So, in just our two counties alone in Monmouth and Ocean, we serve 10 percent of the population. The vast majority of those families have at least one member working — at least one member working and many have two working. But, of course if you have part-time income, or you’re just getting back on your feet from the recession, Sandy, or any personal economic shock that you face, it’s not enough to take care of what’s really a high cost of living area.
Christian: Right. So, what can we do as a community to help fulfill the need as we approach the holiday season?
Rodriguez: So, there are many ways to donate your time, your treasure and your voice. So, the first thing is visit our food bank’s website at fulfillnj.org, learn how you could do all three. Of course, it’s Thanksgiving. We are approaching Thanksgiving season, so it’s always time to think about everyone having turkeys and a Thanksgiving meal. If that’s your entry point to learning about how complex a problem of hunger is to our community, but the simple ways that we could work to solve it and that’s a great way to start engaging.
Christian: Carlos, thank you so much for joining us today.
Rodriguez: Thank you for having me.