Head of Community FoodBank of New Jersey Talks Food Insecurity

September is Hunger Action Month, a time to raise awareness and make sure the basic need to eat is met. Here to talk about that and her first year as the head of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey is Debra Vizzi. She spoke with NJTV News Correspondent Michael Hill.

Hill: Debra, thank you for joining us.

Vizzi: Oh it’s my pleasure, good to be here.

Hill: Thank you. What does hunger, the face of hunger, look like now compared to a year ago?

Vizzi: Well the numbers are staggering. They continue to be staggering — 340,000 children are food insecure in this state, 1.1 million people are dealing with some form of hunger or food insecurity through out the state.

Hill: You just did a Feeding America report as I understand it. What does it show about New Jersey? The place where you have the most food insecurity?

Vizzi: Well, one of the things that is in an alarming new statistic is the rise in hunger among teenagers. We’re seeing a tremendous shift in their food insecurity numbers. One of the things that we see in this state in particular is the rise of pantries, food centers in colleges. Probably because of poverty, number one, and then secondly a lot of other variables, you know even for myself foster care kids going into college being on suspended payment from foster care but not yet eligible for benefits.

Hill: So does that explain then the high level of food insecurity for teenagers?

Vizzi: Yeah, I think it does and I think the other thing is that it’s a stigma — at least considered by them — and so a lot of those folks don’t rise to the radar. They don’t necessarily know where to ask for food. Younger children tend to access shelters and food centers for the food bank through their families or through schools.

Hill: Has it gotten better in South Jersey with food insecurity because … the casino closings have kind of stabilized although there’s another big one coming up. Has it gotten better?

Vizzi: Well I think the thing about South Jersey that’s most alarming for the food bank is that Cape May County shows the highest food insecurity for children. Which is really a very surprising statistic for us because Cape May is viewed as a vacation spot and something that, you know, certainly is an outlier from Atlantic County. So, Atlantic, Cumberland and Cape May have a rise of it. They’re about 20 percent food insecurity for children in the state with Cape May being very highest.

Hill: People think there is no hunger, no food insecurity in Hunterdon County. What do you say to that?

Vizzi: There absolutely is. There is not a county in this state that does not face a hunger issue. The pockets may be larger — depending on where you live and where you go — but there’s certainly other challenges in certain places. I mean obviously our urban centers, seems sort of like a natural assumption Essex County being the highest in the state overall, but there are other pockets in the state that really have a lot of challenges. Hunterdon is one.

Hill: Debra, I looked at the statistic, 18.6 percent food insecurity rate in Essex County. It’s probably the most urban county in this state. How do you explain that the most urban county in the state has the highest rate of food insecurity in the state? How do you explain that?

Vizzi: Well I think that what we know, the data tells us, certainly there’s been lots of new data that’s come out of the state, is that poverty is associated with hunger. The other piece of it is that most of the families that visit any of the feeding centers within the food bank network are working families — over 50 percent. That means that folks are really struggling with how to make ends meet.

Hill: But how do we have this kind of level of food insecurity in America and in New Jersey when people have access to — there are government programs to help, the SNAP program and others to put food on the table, food in the pantry for people?

Vizzi: Well I think you’re right, I mean I think those programs are wonderful and we certainly do everything we can to link folks, but I think that the statistics tell us that most of the folks that come to a shelter, a pantry or seek assistance from the food bank are working. That changes the whole playing field. That means that they have an income. They may not be eligible for benefits. They’re making choices — heating or eating, a copay or a reduction in food. So, one of the things that we do with kids when we know they’re hungry, we’ll give them backpacks on a Friday to bridge them until Monday and we not only include food for them but food for their families because we know if one is hungry, many are hungry.

Hill: And what else are you doing? What are you asking the public to do? Because we’re approaching the holiday season and people tend to think that the holiday season is the busiest time for the food bank but actually the summer is because kids are out of schools. What do you want the public to do?

Vizzi: Well, I think there’s a couple of things. First of all this is a 365 day a year problem. We’re in crisis every day. We are the size of three football fields so we’re delivering 43 million pounds of food per year. How can they help? Certainly monetary donation. Very important because our buying power is different than a consumer. We can with $1 you know acquire $10 worth of food and distribute them and have a vast network to do so. Certainly education and awareness food drives considering the abundance that many families have. Instead of, in lieu of a birthday party, send a gift to the food bank. All of those kinds of things. Volunteering. We’ve had 50,000 volunteer visits this past year. Enormous amounts of people, hundreds, we can accommodate hundreds per day to help us achieve our mission. We know we can’t do it alone. We need the New Jerseyans to come together to fight our battle with us.

Hill: Think of your neighbor, in other words.

Vizzi: Exactly.

Hill: All right, Debra Vizzi there with Community FoodBank of New Jersey. Always good to see you. Thank you. 

Vizzi: Same here. Thank you.