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Food insecurity grows in underserved communities as food banks struggle to keep up with the demand

Local food banks are struggling
Janice Kirkel
Local food banks are struggling

Food banks and other organizations that help feed the hungry say they’re seeing in some cases unprecedented demand. Simone Gagneron is the CEO of New Community Corporation … which works with the Community Food Bank of New Jersey to provide food:

"We have seen an uptick since COVID and again that’s primarily related to the reduction of benefits for most households, that’s also related to additional undocumented immigrants, new Americans, asylum seekers, that’s a mixture coming to Newark."

Emergency allotments for SNAP benefits ended March 1 … That’s when the situation worsened … said Mark Dinglasan … New Jersey’s Food Security Advocate:

March and April and May I think there was a lot of challenges with new families coming in to New Jersey, access to housing, inflation, and then the effects of emergency allotments for SNAP because for the last three years families were getting emergency allotments.

Those emergency allotments meant a lot … Adele LaTourette is senior director of policy and advocacy at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey:

"In New Jersey if you were receiving the minimum benefit during Covid and it was a SNAP minimum emergency assistance benefit it was around 280 dollars a month … all those people went down to 95 dollars a month."

She pointed out that New Jersey has an expanded SNAP benefit … most states don’t … and benefits elsewhere may be as low as 25 dollars a month.

LaTourette said the organization’s pantry in Egg Harbor has seen a 600 percent increase in the number of families it has served since 2021:

"Higher demand than ever… I have been doing this work for over 40 years and started out working in an emergency food pantry and every time I’m on the phone with a food pantry or talking with a food pantry the numbers are just shocking. These are post COVID numbers that are higher than COVID numbers."

And to compound that problem … she said there’s been a decrease in the amount of food coming to food banks from the federal emergency food assistance program. She said she wonders how long food pantries can keep up:

"They’re primarily volunteer, very low on staff and when you’re talking about increases of 600 percent you’re gonna struggle with food, you’re gonna struggle with staffing, you’re gonna struggle with infrastructure, your ability to get food in, your ability to get food out, it’s really, it’s dramatic and it’s frightening."

She said donations are down because of inflation, with people buying less food to donate, so food banks have to buy more food.

Food banks are trying to keep up with the post-pandemic demand
Janice Kirkel
Food banks are trying to keep up with the post-pandemic demand

In Paterson, the organization Oasis - A Haven for Women and Children … is not a true food bank but has a pantry and hands out emergency bags of non perishable food. Laetitia Cairoli is director of development … she says there the pandemic is not over:

"In Paterson a lot of people lost their jobs during the pandemic because they were front-line workers, they might have been waitresses or bus drivers, or people whose jobs disappeared in the pandemic, so the pandemic effects actually have lingered longer here because people got caught in debt."

The USDA estimates that in 2020, about 657 thousand adults and 175 thousand children in New Jersey were food insecure. But experts say that number is likely outdated … in 1986 LaTourette said the number of hungry adults in New Jersey was estimated at 625 thousand. She said it’s hard to get a handle on just how many people are going hungry.

NOTE: Janice Kirkel's report is part of WBGO's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion feature series made possible in part by a grant from The Fund for New Jersey.

Janice Kirkel is a lifelong award-winning journalist who has done everything from network newscasts to national and local sports reports to business newscasts to specialized reporting and editing in technical areas of business and finance such as bankruptcy, capital structure changes and reporting on the business of the investment business.