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Growing Up Hungry

Growing Up Hungry

South Jersey has the state's highest rates of children who lack access to healthy and nutritious foods.  Learn about The Press' commitment toward finding solutions to this important issue

SNAP vital to prevent hunger, but locations can fall short on healthy foods

In some parts of South Jersey, shopping with food stamps is a little like entering a complex scavenger hunt. Looking for a staple like bread? There’s one loaf on a bottom shelf, next to Elmer’s glue and other school supplies. Want fresh fruit? Hope you like high-priced bananas. Bacon and bologna often serve as the only “fresh” available meat.

Unless you visit a supermarket or neighborhood grocery store, your choices of nutritious food can be slim and expensive — even in places that are an approved Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, location.

Food assistance and policymakers say SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, has kept millions of U.S. children and adults from going hungry and feeling food insecure. While not perfect, it is one of the most successful federal programs the country has, experts say. But under President Donald J. Trump’s 2018 proposed budget, it could be cut.

This spring, The Press’ Growing Up Hungry team visited 50 SNAP stores in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean counties. These locations — which each must meet strict criteria to be certified as SNAP-eligible vendors — were primarily convenience stores, specialty markets and small grocery stores. Supermarkets were omitted from the Press’ inspection as they already meet federal regulations, and offer competitive price and variety.

While most South Jersey SNAP locations met the most basic requirements, The Press found some fell short of what it means to provide food that is affordable and nutritious.

Few locations had fresh fruit and produce; that was mainly offered in cans or frozen. At some locations where fresh fruit or bread was sold, bananas were sold individually at the price of a supermarket bundle, and a single loaf of sandwich bread sat hidden on a cart near the register.

The most popular meat items were canned meat, bologna, hot dogs, bacon and beef jerky, all known for containing unhealthy levels of sodium.

On a refrigerator door at a chain drugstore in Lower Township, a sign advertising EBT — the electronic benefits transfer card used instead of food stamps — was followed by the phrase, “Putting healthy food within reach.” Four packs of bacon, Kraft American singles and one pound of butter for $4.99 sat in the glass case.

An Atlantic City convenience store clerk did not know what SNAP, EBT, or food stamps were, even though the store accepts them.

For some of these locations, a super store or supermarket was just down the road or a short drive away. But for South Jersey SNAP participants living in food deserts, or areas with limited grocery stories, these SNAP vendors may serve as the only locations for food shopping.

“It’s key in that aspect to make sure fresh fruits are in the small vendor areas,” said Adele LeTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition. “It’s always something for us and officials to be looking at.”

‘First line of defense’

More than 800,000 New Jersey residents depend on a store or farmer’s market accepting EBT cards.

In New Jersey, SNAP participation extends to adults and children of all backgrounds, with more than 39 percent of SNAP clients in working families, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report in January.

The clients’ common factors are poverty and low incomes, making it difficult for someone to choose between paying rent or spending money to put nutritious food in their child’s belly.

“It’s often the first line of defense against hunger, because the program is so inclusive,” LeTourette said. “I think one reason SNAP was such a great, effective program to create was because the need was so severe, and it still is.”

Trump’s budget proposes to cut SNAP by more than $193 billion over the next 10 years — more than 25 percent — through a massive cost shift to states, cutting eligibility for millions of households and reducing benefits for hundreds of thousands more, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute.

To participate in SNAP, food retailers and vendors must provide varieties in staple food groups of breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables, meats, fish and poultry and dairy products.

SNAP benefits can be used to purchase soft drinks, candy, cookies, snacks and ice cream, but the store must also provide sufficient staple food items in quality and quality, or be a specialty store that focuses on one staple food group, like a farmer’s market, seafood market or bakery.

Linda Doherty, president and CEO of the NJ Food Council, said food vendors are encouraged to accept SNAP benefits to serve the needs of the community, especially in low-income and poverty-stricken areas. Even if SNAP participation is low, she said, retailers participate because “it’s the right thing to do.”

The council is an alliance of food retailers and partners in New Jersey, including Wawa, ShopRite, Stop&Shop, Acme, Whole Foods, Wegmans and others that participate in SNAP. Doherty said being bigger means having more resources such as fresh produce, organic foods and varieties to offer customers.

Smaller vendors face greater challengers to meet SNAP requirements because of their size and limited shelf space, Doherty said. Better inventory and recording of sold items may be needed for retailers to more effectively offer SNAP items in high demand.

Room for improvement

Some smaller shop owners are succeeding in meeting the needs of low-income shoppers.

A tiny store attached to a laundromat in center city Vineland has a large open refrigerated unit and produce bin that includes specialty Hispanic dairy products, lettuce, peppers, avocados, limes and mangos. The store carries the products because people buy them.

“We have to have avocados,” said the clerk, who declined to give her name. The store is a member of the N.J. Healthy Corner Store Network, a statewide program focused on increasing the availability of healthy, affordable food in local stores and bodegas in communities underserved by supermarkets.

Cumberland County has some of the highest poverty and childhood food insecurity rates in the state. Projects such as the corner store network and Live Healthy Vineland, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, identified ways to help corner convenience and food stores carry and sell more fresh produce.

A large number of their customers use EBT cards to buy goods, county experts said.

In Atlantic City, Save-A-Lot, which opened in 2012 on Atlantic Avenue, is a hard discount, limited assortment grocery store. It offers more fresh fruit, vegetables and meat than any other location in the resort and is the closest the city has to a supermarket.

“While traditional grocers may carry 1,000 items, including different sizes, brands and receipts, a limited outlet will stick to the most popular flavors and sizes, greatly reducing the footprint needed. This also allows for more items in smaller footprint, reducing overhead and labor cost, thus passing the savings along to the customer,” said Chon C. Tomlin, Save-A-Lot spokeswoman.

Current savings are 40 percent compared with traditional outlets, Tomlin said.

Tomlin, who was in Atlantic City when the corporate store was being established, said the abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables and meats are typical of the Save-A-Lot format.

Similarly, legislators have fought to streamline the way farmer’s markets can get approved to participate in SNAP and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. The state Assembly passed a bill Thursday that would provide $1 million for small food retailers operating in low- and moderate-income urban and rural communities to help increase access to healthier foods.

Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities, said there is continuous conversation around how to make SNAP healthier without reducing program effectiveness, but states have flexibility with the program and improvements can be made at the state level before changes are made at a federal level.

“SNAP is one of the oldest and most comprehensive programs we have,” she said. “It’s not broken. It’s doing what it is meant to do and it doesn’t need any radical reform, but SNAP is a program that can always be improved, and we have ad hoc committees working very hard in overseeing it.”


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