As you drive the roads of rural South Jersey, the farmlands can seem endless as you’re passing every you-pick-it nursery you can name. But, make no mistake — what we’re about to enter is actually the desert.
“About three years ago we targeted about 21 food deserts in our area. These are places where 30 percent of the population is at least a mile away from a grocery store or a place where they can buy food,” said Joe Njoroge, interim president and CEO of the Food Bank of South Jersey.
Food deserts, or nutritional wastelands, are often, but not always, in low-income areas where shoppers depend on fast food chains or the cheap, but heavily processed, items from a corner store. The number of these so-called deserts — especially in the southern half of the state — is significant. Salem City, in Salem County, has a population of 5,000. The number of supermarkets there? Zero.
“Most of our residents don’t have access to transportation, so they are limited as it relates to where they can go to shop. Our closest grocery store is about 12 to 15 miles away. The previous operator that just recently acated the city, was in the city for over 30 years,” said Salem City Mayor Charles Washington.
In Salem, long time operator Incollingo’s Market closed it’s doors about a year ago.
The USDA says roughly 298,000 New Jersey residents have limited access to a supermarket or grocery store live within what are considered the state’s 134 food deserts — 21 of those are in Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland counties combined. It may not sound overly disproportionate until you look at the sparse population and lack of transportation options.
“It’s always about the bottom line. No one wants to come into a community where they are not going to be patronized, where incentives aren’t heavy and where they won’t get a return on their investment. And we understand that and we are working to meet the investors in their place of need as well,” said Washington.
“It’s just the Dollar Tree. We have a Dollar General, we have a Family Dollar. That’s it. As far as the frozen meats, that’s what we get from here. But they run out so quickly because we don’t have a grocery store anymore,” said Salem resident Ternise Giles.
It’s a bit ironic, really. South Jersey is an area saturated with farms, which are some of our region’s largest producers of fresh foods. Yet a scene like a vacant supermarket, is all too common.
“We’re trying to figure out how can we go into those areas and bring partnerships that will create more food access to people who are there,” said Njoroge.
Salem is just one of many communities partnering with nonprofits like the Food Bank of South Jersey to distribute healthy foods at no cost so residents with little means can put a meal on the table.
The food bank distributed 12 million pounds of food last year, but it’s still not enough. A report from a group called Feeding America, found 10 percent, or nearly 1 million New Jerseyans in 2016 were ‘food insecure.’ That means for a number of reasons they were unable to get enough healthy food for themselves and their families.
“If you can’t get to our distribution site, we have a ‘Hope Mobile’, which began as a tractor trailer, which goes out to communities and we bring the food to that community,” said Njoroge. “So, we will set up in a parking lot or in a church environment and distribute the food. So, if you can’t come to us we will come to you.”
But food deserts alone aren’t to blame for eating habits and insecurity. There’s the issue of inequality — differences in income, education, and in turn, nutritional knowledge.
“We teach everything from label reading to how to cut up a whole chicken,” explained Tricia Yeo, program manager for the health and wellness department for the Food Bank of South Jersey.
Inside the Food Bank’s kitchen, Yeo preps for her health and wellness cooking class. She teaches everyone, ages 4 to 98, the ins and outs of healthy eating.
“A lot of times when people are visiting the pantries they are receiving items that may not be by choice and they don’t know what to do with it, so in that case we are showing them how to use a new product for the first time, or how to take things that they’re already cooking and make them in a healthier way,” she said.
Here’s the best part: They come for a 6-week course and leave each class with a recipe and bag of groceries.
At the Gonzalez home in Chislehurst, Camden County — that makes meal time a family activity. And a source of food access without going to a pantry.
“A lot of it in the store is really expensive, so that’s a big issue,” said mom Christine Gonzalez.
And here’s the thing, the kids are totally into it.
“We were looking at labels, but [they] taught us a lot more about really paying attention to the labels and finding out stuff we thought was healthy actually wasn’t healthy,” Gonzalez said.
Cruising down the produce aisle, it’s no wonder some of these fruits and veggies can seem intimidating. How the heck do you cook a beet? Turns out, some larger chains like Shop Rite provide free nutrition consultations and store tours.
“I even get people who come in after being discharged from the hospital because their doctors will send them to a dietician and really the best place to educate people on what they should be eating is in the grocery store where they are purchasing their food,” said registered dietician Megan Hewitt.
The dieticians on staff are starting to spread to more urban locations and helping with meal planning on a budget.
“Frozen fruits and vegetables are a really great option,” said dietician supervisor Jessica Guarnieri, “They’re usually picked at peak ripeness and then frozen so you’re retaining all the nutrient value in them and they’re usually a lot more affordable.”
Back in Salem, though, they’re still a long way from an option like this.
“We reached out to all the major chains. We knew that was a heavy lift and uphill battle. We are a population just under 5,000. The current site is small — about 20,000 square feet — so those numbers often times don’t meet the metrics for the larger chains, so we’re at a disadvantage,” Washington said.
Here’s the thing. Breaking the food desert cycle also means finding an operator willing to be a vested partner in a low-income neighborhood.
“If they were really in it for the community, then we would have a grocery store right now,” Washington said.
Because location is just part of this food desert equation.