If you travel more than one mile to a supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store with healthy, affordable food options in an urban area, and more than 20 miles in a rural area, you are living in what the U.S. Department of L ‘Agriculture considers the 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 who live half a mile or more from food options in urban areas, or 10 miles in rural areas, raises that figure to more than 53 million Americans, including those from New Jersey.
In January 2021, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed into law the Food Desert Relief Act, part of the Economic Recovery Act, which will provide approximately $240 million in funding to combat this issue in the state.
The Food Desert Relief Act provides tax breaks for supermarkets and grocery stores that open in underserved areas, as well as grants, loans and other assistance to food retailers of all sizes to operate in these areas.
The New Jersey Community Food Bank estimates that 800,000 residents in the state face food insecurity, and nearly 200,000 of them are children.
Robert Brown, 53, of Newark, New Jersey, says he commutes two miles from his home to a car-free ShopRite, telling ABC News that price and options are a factor.
“I live about 20 blocks away, but we have a store downstairs where I live, but [prices are] so high, I come here,” Brown said. “There’s no need to spend my money there, and I get a bit of nothing when I can get everything I need.”
Katrina Moseley, 45, says she needs to go further because the two-mile drive to ShopRite is her second grocery trip of the day.
“I started at 8 a.m. this morning, went to Walmart, got home around 11:30 a.m., rested a bit, took the bus…I got here around 12, 12 or an hour. I’ve been shopping. I’m taking my time in the store going over things, and now I’m waiting for transportation to go home,” she said.
Moseley depends on two different bus routes, taxis and relatives to pick her up, as she spends her day off feeding her family of four, including a daughter with a baby on the way.
“I go to Walmart to get the bulk of the meat because it’s tough, you can do like… One of their packs of meat, you can make 2 or 3 meals out of it, it all depends on how you make it” , she says.
Return transportation is also an issue for Brown, knowing that some options are inconvenient. “If I tried to get on the bus with this, it would be too much, it would be too much,” she said.
Tara Colton, executive vice president for economic security for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, said the fight against food deserts, a product of structural racism, neighborhood restriction (the removal of services from certain communities) and divestment, is not as simple as building a supermarket.
“You can live next door to the most amazing market or farmer’s market, but if you can’t afford the food there, or they don’t accept federal nutrition programs like snap, then it’s unreachable for you,” Colton said. .
Support from the Economic Development Authority The & Serve NJ initiative began as a $2 million pilot program to help with food security, in conjunction with support from the state’s restaurant industry in 2020. The program grew into an initiative of $45 million, paying restaurants to deliver ready-to-eat meals directly to those in need.
Colton told ABC News, “I often say it’s not about bringing food to people, it’s about bringing food to people. And there are a lot of ways to do that. They can walk into a big building and buy it, put it in the truck of a car, but you can also take it to them more centrally.”
She touts the program’s impact. “That dollar you spend keeps the restaurant open, the workers employed, and gives people who often don’t have access to this type of food a healthy, nutritious home-cooked meal,” she said.
For those like Moseley who prefer to cook their own meals, despite the mile-long odyssey through several supermarkets, the focus is on the necessities for her family.
“The ones I have to worry about, so that’s what I do for them, shop. Do it, out of the way,” she said.
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