TRENTON — New Jersey legislators prioritized food assistance programs and initiatives last week when they passed or approved of several bills in committee meetings that would help feed people and reduce waste.

Focusing on the continuing problem of hunger in New Jersey, legislators pushed through a bill that would aim to bring healthier, nutritious food to residents in food deserts, or areas where residents have limited access to supermarkets, grocery stores and farmers markets.

The bill (A4704) would direct the state Department of Agriculture to create a two-year pilot program that would establish year-round, weekly produce markets in three food desert communities, which are not specifically defined in the bill.

In New Jersey, more than 919,000 people struggle with hunger and food insecurity, or lack of access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food, according to Feeding America. That includes one in seven children who suffer from hunger.

All four counties in The Press of Atlantic City’s coverage area — Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean — have some of the highest rates in the state of children who lack access to healthy and nutritious foods, both in quality and quantity, according to the Feeding America organization.

“For many New Jersey residents, consuming a healthy diet is a matter of access and economics,” Assemblyman Adam Taliaferro, D-Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, said in a statement. “While families may desire to eat well-balanced meals, they don’t always have access to the fresh fruit and vegetables to make such meals possible.”

Food at the year-round markets would be supplied by at least one partnering provider, which would have to accept cash, credit, debit and food vouchers for produce, offer reduced price produce packages, include recipes using the produce and give guidelines on how to keep produce fresh.

The food providers would also be required to donate excess produce to local food banks and nonprofit organizations.

The bill is modeled after “Produce in SNAP,” a series of community markets organized by Hungry Harvest in Baltimore, Maryland.

A different bill aims to entirely eliminate food deserts. Legislation advanced by the Assembly Human Services Panel Thursday would provide tax credits to supermarkets and grocery stores that locate to food desert communities.

Assemblyman Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said there are 41 cities throughout the state that can be classified as food deserts.

“We need grocery stores and supermarket chains to expand into these areas, and stay in these areas to provide fresh food and produce to the community,” he said in a statement. “Tax incentives will help us achieve that goal.”

The bill (A4700) would establish the Food Desert Elimination Program under the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which would designate the physical boundaries of urban food desert communities. The bill moves on for a full vote in the state Assembly.

Another big change up would involve transferring authority over all special nutrition assistance programs—four in total including the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children—currently in the state Department of Health over to the state Department of Human Services.

Sponsors of the bill (4706) stated that that move makes sense given that the Human Services department has the authority to administer all other public benefits programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, WorkFirstNJ and NJ FamilyCare.

Other bills on the topic would develop a public awareness campaign for eliminating food waste and a Food Waste Task Force, create an “anti-hunger” resource website link on the website of every state executive department, start a program that would give out grants to colleges with hunger-free campuses, or campuses with food programs for students, and create an online portal to help facilitate surplus food donations among organizations.

Contact: 609-272-7022 NLeonard@pressofac.com

Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Staff Writer

Previously interned and reported for Boston.com, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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