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TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Gilbert L. “Whip” Wilson to improve access to fresh produce for residents living in as few as one selected low-income community with little or no supermarkets – known as a ‘food desert’ – was signed into law yesterday.

The bill (A-3688/S-2728) authorizes the Department of Agriculture to establish a mobile farmers’ market pilot program to be conducted in one or more municipalities to be determined by the Secretary of Agriculture in which residents are unable to obtain adequate access to nutritious foods. The municipality must then agree to participate in the program. Under the pilot program, state-authorized vendors will transport fresh fruit and vegetables into the state-designated community or communities where the produce is to be sold. Vendors will be encouraged to accept government-issued low-income food vouchers as payment, but will be allowed to accept any form of payment at their discretion.

“In many urban areas, there are no large grocery stores for residents to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, and very few healthy food options in general,” said Assemblyman Wilson. “This is a great start in finding innovative ways to bring nutrition to our residents. We will give them access to fresh foods and the ability to make healthier eating choices for themselves and their families. This legislation will also open an entirely new market – urban centers – to our state’s farmers.

“I am truly confident that this program will succeed and as a result branch out to other food deserts, enabling us to help even more residents in need,” added Wilson.

The inaccessibility of nutritious food in food desert communities has been attributed in large part to the absence of supermarkets, grocery stores and farmers’ markets in these areas. Businesses like liquor stores, fast food chains and convenience marts, all of which stock cheap pre-processed foods that are low in nutritional value and high in empty calories, thrive there instead.

The Department of Agriculture will be required to select the municipality or municipalities for the “New Jersey Fresh Mobiles Pilot Program” and to publish on its website: its decision, the vendor supply area, and the times during which the fresh mobile vendors will be accessible for residents. The pilot program will operate for at least one year, after which the Department of Agriculture will submit a feasibility report.

The bill, which was also sponsored by Senator Donald Norcross, further directs the Department of Agriculture to establish a network of fresh mobile vendors to participate in the pilot program and to make every reasonable effort to ensure that a consistent, year-round supply of reasonably priced fresh produce will be made available. Whenever possible, the department will be required to utilize in-state produce farmers, collaborative farmer’s organizations, or private, non-profit, or governmental entities that are engaged in fresh produce efforts.