Cross-posted at Star-Ledger. Promoted by Rosi.
Far too many New Jersey residents are facing a health crisis, which shouldn’t be the case in such a wealthy state. Maintaining a wholesome diet is an almost impossible challenge for our urban poor, who suffer with limited financial resources and few places to purchase affordable fresh food. As a result, low-income New Jerseyans are especially vulnerable to obesity and its associated health risks.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 530,000 New Jerseyans – or about 6 percent of the population – live in “food deserts” with limited access to supermarkets. Camden, for example, lost its only supermarket last year and its 77,000 residents must now rely on expensive corner stores and mini-markets with inadequate healthy food options. Families living in these deserts are forced to make difficult choices between fruits and vegetables that cost more and unhealthy high-carbohydrate products and processed foods that are less expensive, feed more people and last longer.
Compounding this public health crisis are Congress’ devastating cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, as part of the recent federal Farm Bill. According to the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, the 10-year, $8.6 billion hit affects approximately 159,000 New Jersey families, with families now receiving as much as $90 less per month to purchase food.
Adding insult to injury, the foods the Farm Bill continues to support are contributing to the obesity epidemic. The top four heavily subsidized crops are corn, wheat, soybeans and rice, which in their processed form – high-fructose corn syrup, soybean oil and grain-fed cattle – are far from wholesome.
According to a 2013 annual report from America’s Health Rankings, more than 1.7 million adults in New Jersey are obese and, from 2012 to 2013, the prevalence of adult obesity increased by 4 percent, from 23.7 percent to 24.6 percent. An August 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control notes that 16.6 percent of 2- to 4-year-olds from low-income families in New Jersey are obese, the second-highest percentage of any state.
In our region, the most damaging cut to SNAP by Congress is the elimination of additional benefits for low-income families who receive heat subsidies, by increasing the eligibility amount from $1 to $20. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo increased the heat subsidies for hundreds of thousands of New York families so they can remain eligible for extra SNAP benefits. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy followed a similar approach last week.
Gov. Chris Christie should take similar action now to offset the SNAP cuts so New Jersey’s most-challenged families are not forced to further suffer Washington’s ill will. At the same time, communities must do more to help their residents. In Jersey City, we have launched a partnership with the No Kid Hungry campaign and New Jersey City University to educate our Women, Infants and Children program clients on how to best shop for healthy foods on a limited budget.
The Jersey City program will result in 2,000 WIC clients touring a local supermarket with Health Department advocates and NJCU public health students. To encourage participation, each client will receive a $10 gift card to the supermarket, paid for through a grant from the national organization Share Our Strength, which is working to end domestic childhood hunger. We believe this new program, coupled with a planned expansion of our Farmers’ Markets into the inner city, will foster a healthier lifestyle for our residents.
Vulnerable New Jersey residents shouldn’t be forced to further suffer because of what Congress has done. That’s why, as a critical first step, Christie must do what he can to restore lost SNAP benefits. Local governments must also step up and do their part to ensure better food choices for our most at-risk families.