50 food deserts in N.J. to get funding to expand healthy grocery options
State officials have identified 50 food deserts in New Jersey. They will be eligible for $240 million in tax incentives to expand residents’ access to healthy food. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
State officials have identified 50 food deserts in New Jersey where they aim to make tax incentives and other funding available to entice grocers to open.
The New Jersey Economic Development Authority released a draft list this week of areas where residents have limited access to healthy, affordable food. The public has until Feb. 4 to offer feedback.
Topping the list were Camden/Woodlynne, Atlantic City/Ventnor, Newark, Paterson, Passaic, and Salem, neighborhoods where altogether nearly 344,000 people live. Food deserts were identified in every county in the state.
Under legislation passed last year called the Food Desert Relief Act, those communities could get up to $40 million annually over the next six years in tax credits, loans, grants, and technical assistance to expand access to nutritious foods and develop new ways to alleviate food deserts.
The incentives are intended to lure supermarkets to open there, encourage existing food retailers to provide healthier food, and help grocers expand e-commerce, including for programs serving low-income residents like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
The goal is to reduce food insecurity and hunger in a state where 800,000 New Jersey residents — including 1 in 10 children — struggle with hunger, according to the Community Food Bank of New Jersey and Feeding America.
The initiative comes at a time when that number of people needing food assistance is growing. More than 887,000 people relied on SNAP benefits as of last September, up 15% from the year before, according to state data.
“We have an obligation as state leaders, and as human beings, to ensure that no New Jerseyan goes to bed hungry, regardless of their socioeconomic status,” Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver said. “By crafting one of the most comprehensive food desert designations in the country, we are leading the nation in taking necessary steps to eradicate food deserts and remove the barriers keeping our state’s residents from accessing nutritious food.”
Linda M. Doherty, president and CEO of the New Jersey Food Council, applauded the state’s approach to food deserts as a “national model.” The council represents grocers and food retailers.
“While the holidays are behind us that celebrate food, New Jersey supermarkets and retail food stores support these anti-hunger programs and our food banks everyday throughout the year,” Doherty said. “We are poised to work in tandem with policy makers, community leaders, and stakeholders as this program develops.”
Food deserts are more common in areas with smaller populations, higher rates of abandoned or vacant homes, and residents with lower incomes, higher unemployment, and lower rates of education, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. They are disproportionately more common in Black neighborhoods, according to a 2014 study.
Poverty can fuel food deserts, with some grocers reluctant to open in communities where residents have limited purchasing power, the Annie E. Casey Foundation says.
The initiative to abolish food deserts is one of several strategies the state has under way to reduce hunger.
Last year, the state launched a program called Sustain & Serve NJ to support the restaurant industry and reduce hunger. Under that $45 million program, the state buys meals from smaller restaurants and distributes them for free to food-insecure residents.
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