A handful of anti-hunger advocates in New Jersey have decided that it's time for a new model when it comes to addressing issues of food security.
They are pushing for a more comprehensive approach that includes not only feeding the hungry, but also finding ways to ensure that healthy food is available in communities where the cheapest alternatives have tended to be high-fat, high-sugar fast food or processed products distributed by large corporations.
Food policy councils have been formed or are forming in five New Jersey communities — Camden, Newark and New Brunswick and Mercer and Passaic counties — with the goal of lowering the cost of fresh, local food and making sure that residents of the state's urban areas have the same options available to those in the suburbs.
"What we really are seeking is to build a base of citizens, of residents and people with a stake in the wellness of New Brunswick," said Lisanne Finston, director of the Elijah's Promise Soup Kitchen in New Brunswick and a member of the New Brunswick Community Food Alliance. "We want to bring together people who live here, work here, who are affiliated with organizations that are engaged in New Brunswick to create a body of people with knowledge so that we can create a stronger global food system."
Advocates involved with the food council movement say that the old system of food pantries and soup kitchens — while useful to address immediate needs -- are inadequate to the larger crisis, which includes not only food insecurity and hunger, but also the growing obesity epidemic and its related health problems and the impact that the corporate food system has on the environment.
Food insecurity is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as having "limited or uncertain access to adequate food." Feeding America, a national antihunger group, said that 13.5 percent of New Jersey residents — or about 1.19 million people — can be considered "food insecure," with Essex County having the highest percentage (18.9 percent) of residents facing food insecurity in the state.
At the same time, obesity is on the rise. According the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, 60.7 percent of New Jerseyans 18 and older are overweight, with 23.8 percent classified as obese. Among New Jersey students in grades nine through 12, 14.2 percent are overweight and 10.3 percent obese, and 17 percent of children ages two to five are overweight and 17.3 percent obese.
The issues are connected, Finston said. The higher cost of healthy food in places like New Brunswick and many other urban areas means that low-income people are forced to choose cheaper but less healthy options -- especially if they are forced to rely on food pantries and many soup kitchens. Most corporate donors to food agencies, she said, provide their surplus foods -- most often, processed food that is filled with high-fructose corn syrup, other sugars, and fats.
"The emergency food system is loaded with junk food," she said. "We're perpetuating the disproportionate impact of diabetes on poor people because we're serving them crap. We want to do good and we want to help people, so we have to look at what we are doing and ask, 'is it really helping?' That is an important question to ask."
Food councils bring together a variety of stakeholders -- food pantries and soup kitchens, churches, local businesses, government and school officials -- to expand options. These can include community garden initiatives, efforts to expand buying power for corner stores and bodegas, zoning changes designed to attract supermarkets to underserved areas and educational efforts.
"It's not just about getting food on their table today, but also regularly, and in adequate quantity and quality," Nurgul Fitzgerald, assistant professor of nutrition and public health at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, told Rutgers' Focus website in 2011.
"All of these efforts, whether it's food policy or chronic disease, come down to promoting health and preventing disease collaboratively, rather than focusing on one risk factor by itself."
Ucheoma Akobundo, director of the Hunger-Free Communities program for the United Way of Passaic County, said that the Passaic initiative is still in its early stages. It is working with the community to develop a comprehensive plan, which will be issued in October.
"[The United Way] likes not only direct services, but things that improve the system," she said. "That's why we are moving in this direction. It allows us to engage more fully as a convener of different agencies that can pool their services and really help the community."
The United Way is administering a USDA grant and has issued a report on food access in Passaic that showed that, while there appears to be enough food available, it often was considered by at-risk populations (the unemployed, underemployed, and those with disabilities) to be unsafe or not nutritious. At-risk populations "reported poor-quality produce and goods sold past their expiration date, especially in smaller stores and bodegas. Twenty-six percent of the respondents to the key informant survey perceive that safe and nutritious food is either somewhat or very unavailable," the report noted.
There are alternative food providers, like farmers markets and community gardens, the report said, but they are not used regularly by at-risk groups during growing seasons and many "receive no fresh produce either from their own or community gardens or those of a friend or relative."
Respondents in Passaic County said they have access to big-box warehouse stores -- like Walmart or BJ's -- and supermarkets, but many cite a lack of income, high food costs, the generally high cost of living, transportation issues and difficulty accessing food stamps and disability benefits as interfering with access to quality food.
Akobundo said that many of the challenges facing Passaic County are similar to those in urban areas elsewhere in the state.
"They center around food being available in corner stores, that moderate-priced supermarkets are not necessarily in places where people live and work, and the urban landscape adds another layer to the onion," she said.
The food council is likely to focus on the issue of "buying power in general," but she did not want to talk about the plan's potential specifics.
"We are in the process of looking at intervention and prioritizing what can we do short term and long term," she said. "Improving buying power is the first thing to figure out."
Nevertheless, all options are on the table.
"We have to look at all the tools in the large arsenal to craft a food system that works for the most people," Akobundo said. "We would like very much for our action plan to be community driven and based on what Passaic County residents and stakeholders determine."
That's the goal of the New Brunswick alliance, which has open membership and 17 voting members organized into five related workgroups targeting the key issues facing the city: Healthy Food Access, Community Engagement, Food Economic Development, Advocacy and Policy, and Agriculture. The committees already are working with corner stores and bodegas to expand food choices; with schools to create healthier menus; and with local officials to bring in new supermarkets, create local jobs, encourage food entrepreneurship, and expand community garden initiatives.
The New Brunswick alliance worked with the Ralph W. Voorhees Center for Civic Engagement at Rutgers University's Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy to study the city's "urban agriculture," which resulted in the city using more "park spaces for community gardens." As a result, the city "is looking to work with the alliance to find ways to, over time, build out more community gardens on public spaces and public lands."
"Community gardens are important for a number of reasons," Finston said. "They promote food security because people in the local community are growing their own foods and defraying the cost of purchasing food.
Gardens also build community, she said.
"New Brunswick is not like other urban areas," she said. "In large urban areas where there are large tracts of vacant open land, community gardens have proven to build security in neighborhoods because there are people out in those neighborhoods. They become neighborhood watches and build property value because the abandoned tracts are beautified."
New Brunswick already has several community gardens, with about 140 garden beds measuring about 4 feet by 8 feet, which supplies enough produce for a family of up to four. The hope is to double that number over the next two to three years and create a gardening center where residents can get soil tested, plants started, and swap produce, she said.
The other major project, she said, is a corner market initiative that will evaluate the quantity and quality of fresh fruits and vegetables available in the city's corner markets and then work with market owners to make more available. The city's initiative will be based on the survey done in Philadelphia by the Food Trust.
Finston said that corner market initiatives are a major activity conducted by food policy councils around the country, including in Newark and Camden.
"The goal with it is that it promotes more availability of more fresh, healthy alternatives and it raises education and awareness among residents and involves them in the process of making healthier corner stores," she said.
Engaging the community is important, she said.
"It is great to make food more accessible, but just because you build it doesn't mean that anyone will come," she said.
The alliance also plans to survey businesses to identify kitchen spaces in the city where entrepreneurs can work and launch their own food businesses. Elijah's Promise provides space to small enterprises, but the hope is to find more, she said. The Fresh Grocer, a Philadelphia-based supermarket chain that serves urban areas, has agreed to purchase food from local entrepreneurs for the New Brunswick store that is expected to open this fall.
"The goal is creating food self-sufficiency, keeping food dollars locally, supporting local businesses who are supporting local farmers, creating access to better food," she said. "If I'm buying from [New Brunswick's) Frank's Pickle Peppers, then I know what's in his products and I know it's not loaded with crazy preservatives."
Food policy councils lend structure and focus to these efforts, she said, and can be the "engines for change and places where initiatives percolate and take hold, so that we can see five, 10, 15 years down the road, a change in how our community is organized around food."
"A new conversation must occur to ensure that we are serving the wonderful families we served in the past," she said. "But more needs to be done to create self-reliance."
NJ Spotlight is an online news service providing insight and information on issues critical to New Jersey, with the aim of informing and engaging the state’s communities and businesses. Read more From New Jersey Spotlight.