‘Food deserts’ are impacting New Jersey residents in efforts to alleviate the crisis

If you drive more than a mile to a supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store with affordable and healthy food options in an urban area and more than 20 miles in a rural area, you’re living in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a definition of a “food desert “.

This lack of access affects about 17 million Americans, according to the USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas. The data also shows that the number of people living a half-mile or more from places to eat in urban areas or 10 miles in rural areas brings that number to more than 53 million Americans, including those in New Jersey.

In January 2021, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Food Desert Relief Act, part of the Economic Recovery Act, which will allocate approximately $240 million in funding to address this problem in the state.

The Food Desert Relief Act provides tax breaks for supermarkets and grocery stores opening in underserved areas, as well as grants, loans and other support for food retailers of all sizes to operate in those areas.

The Community Food Bank of New Jersey estimates that 800,000 residents in the state struggle with food insecurity, and nearly 200,000 of those are children.

Robert Brown, 53, of Newark, NJ, says he commutes two miles from his home to a ShopRite without a car and tells ABC News that prices and options are a factor.

“I live about 20 blocks away but we have a store downstairs from where I live but [prices are] so high that I come here,” Brown said. “There’s no need to spend my money there and I get a little bit of nothing when I can get everything I need.”

Katrina Moseley, 45, says she needs to go one step further as the two-mile drive to ShopRite is her second shopping spree of the day.

“I started this morning at 8am, I went to Walmart, got home at 11:30am, got some rest, took the bus… I got here at 12 or 12pm. I’m taking my time in the store going through things and now I’m waiting to be shipped home,” she said.

Katrina Moseley says she relies on two different bus routes, taxis and relatives to pick her up to go shopping to support her family of four.

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Moseley has to rely on two different bus routes, taxis and relatives to pick her up as she spends her day off supporting her family of four, including a daughter with a baby on the way.

“I go to Walmart to get most of the meat because it keeps, you can make something like that… One of their packs of meat that you can make about 2-3 meals out of, it all depends on how you make it.” She said.

Backhaul is also an issue for Brown, knowing some options aren’t practical. “If I tried to get on the bus with that, it would be too much, it would be too much,” she said.

Tara Colton, executive vice president of economic security for the New Jersey Economic Development Agency, says tackling food deserts, a product of structural racism, neighborhood redlining (withholding services from certain communities), and divestments aren’t as simple as building a supermarket.

“You can live next to the most amazing market or farmer’s market, but if you can’t afford to buy the groceries there or they don’t accept federal nutrition programs like Snap, then it’s inaccessible to you,” Colton said.

Sustain the Economic Development Agency & Serve NJ initiative began as a $2 million pilot program to support food security in conjunction with supporting the state’s restaurant industry in 2020. The program has grown into a $45 million initiative where restaurants being paid to deliver ready-to-eat meals directly to those in need.

Colton told ABC News, “I often say it’s not about making people eat, it’s about making people eat. And there are many ways to do that. You can go into a big building and buy it, put it in the truck of a car, but you can also bring it to them centrally.”

It promotes the effectiveness of the program. “That one dollar you spend keeps the restaurant open, keeps the workers busy, and gives people who often don’t have access to this type of food a healthy, fresh, nutritious home-cooked meal,” she said.

For those like Moseley who prefer to cook their own meals, despite the mile-long odyssey to multiple supermarkets, the focus is on doing the necessities for their families.

“The ones I have to take care of, so I do that for them, shop. Get it done, out of the way,” she said.

About Ellen Lewandowski

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