GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Students might have been away on winter break at Stockton University, but the campus center event room was filled Monday with people from all over the state looking to make a difference in nutrition and healthy eating in South Jersey.
CareAC, an AtlantiCare Foundation community coalition, hosted its first Nourishing Communities — Ingredients for Success food summit in Atlantic County with representatives from state, county, private and nonprofit organizations.
The goal was to bring experts in various health and wellness fields together to share information and initiatives on how to better the state’s feeding programs and reduce food insecurity among children, adults and seniors.
“We’re trying to start the conversation because hunger is a multifaceted sector,” said Chris Zellers, southeast regional senior program coordinator for New Jersey SNAP-Ed Support Network through the Rutgers Cooperative Extension. “We all have different ideas and goals that we can mold together.”
Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties have some of the highest rates in the state of children who lack access to nutritious foods, both in quality and quantity, according to the Feeding America organization.
An estimated 35 percent of children struggling with food insecurity live in a family that does not qualify for state and federal food-assistance programs, according to Feeding America.
About 75 experts from the state Department of Agriculture, Community FoodBank of New Jersey Southern Branch, Cumberland, Cape, Atlantic YMCA, AtlantiCare, Advocates for Children of New Jersey and other agencies gathered at Stockton for the summit.
They talked about ways to better serve the state’s residents who not only need help feeding themselves and their families, but also need help finding and affording healthy food.
Presentations and break-out groups focused on solutions such as the state’s summer feeding programs, farm-to-school initiatives, foodbank needs and mobile pantries, senior feeding programs, the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, community gardens, the statewide Breakfast After the Bell campaign, hunger and obesity.
Michael Smith, nutrition program specialist at the state Department of Agriculture, said they need to find a way to better serve and support communities, whether that be through funding, organizational or resources, but making those connections is still difficult.
“We’re trying every angle we can, and it’s still hard to figure out who to reach out to and who to talk to down on the ground,” he said. “I’ve been working in this field for a long time, and I still get emotional about this. You look at the statistics in our communities on poverty and hunger and it’s unbelievable.”
Richard Uniacke, vice president of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey Southern Branch in Egg Harbor Township, said he hopes everyone left “feeling compelled to find ways to feed and help more people.”
Zellers said another food summit is scheduled in February in Cape May County with Atlantic Cape Community College.