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Speaker Coughlin: New Jersey must be able to feed its people

Hunger is a crisis. We knew that before the pandemic, we knew it during the pandemic, and we know it right now.

With unemployment soaring to historic highs, it came as no surprise when more and more people and families began struggling to get enough food on the table. Communities rallied around one another. As people lined up and as cars waited their turn to load up, it was neighbors helping neighbors. Strangers serving strangers. Foodbanks, churches, farmers, grocery store owners and local leaders all joining forces so we could get through to the other side of the pandemic.

The problem? Hunger doesn’t start or end with the coronavirus.

The fight against food insecurity is a long-standing battle. A battle we had been winning until the pandemic hit. Since 2010, when the percentage of food-insecure households in New Jersey stood at 18.6%, we had been making steady year-on-year progress in closing the hunger gap. We had made it down to 11.3% by 2018. However, today standing at 13.5%, we estimate 1.2 million New Jerseyans live with the uncertainty and challenge of where their next meal will come from. One-third of those are children.

That’s what makes it so critical we act on best practices to expand and strengthen New Jersey’s food safety net.

Just this week, the Assembly Women and Children Committee advanced a hunger relief bill package (A5880, A5881, A5882, A5883 and A5884) that legislative colleagues and I worked on in partnership with Hunger Free New Jersey. The measures focus on boosting aid delivered through some of New Jersey’s most important anti-hunger programs: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Breakfast After the Bell, and the federal Summer Food Service Program.

We are also looking to create New Jersey’s very own Office of Food Insecurity Advocate. A challenge has been that the state’s food assistance programs are administered through different agencies. Often siloed in their operations, lack of coordination means some people or families slip through the cracks and end up under-enrolled in programs they’re qualified for. Where a family might be on SNAP, a child in that family may not be getting meals in school or vice versa, for example. This piece of legislation would be game changing in establishing an office with responsibility at the intersection of these programs and for conducting outreach.

For low-income families and those on a fixed income, these programs are ultimately central to being able to thrive in all areas of life.

As Hunger Free New Jersey Director Adele LaTourette shares, “waivers implemented during the pandemic showed us how effective food aid programs can be when certain barriers to access are lowered. Boosting access to SNAP and boosting the mandates on summer and breakfast meal programs altogether enables us to strengthen critical programs, so we gain ground in the fight against hunger.”

Of course, it is alongside congressional partners that we do this work. Thanks to passage of the American Rescue Plan, over $1 billion has been given to states to support SNAP, and children will be able to eat through the summer with the extension of the Pandemic-Electronic Benefits Transfer supporting those who receive free or reduced-price meals at school.

“The COVID-19 public health and economic crisis has only magnified systemic injustices in our nation’s food system,” says U.S. Senator Cory Booker. “This bold relief package will bring forth critical changes to support New Jersey’s anti-hunger programs during this pandemic and beyond. I applaud Speaker Coughlin and his partners in the Legislature for prioritizing hunger and nutrition issues in our state, and I remain committed to continuing my work in the Senate to ensure all Americans have equitable access to nutritious, healthy food.”

When federal pandemic-related waivers and flexibilities end or phase out, we must be ready to continue supporting the families and individuals who have come to rely on these programs through an incredibly tough year.

Hunger is not the legacy we wish to leave behind, we will and we must continue to the fight for every resident to be food secure. If we cannot feed our own people, how is it we can call ourselves a great state?

New Jersey General Assembly Speaker Craig J. Coughlin represents the 19th Legislative District, which includes parts of Middlesex County.

Read the opinion piece from Speaker Coughlin, published by on June 17, 2021 here.