New Jersey could become the first state in the country to appoint an official anti-hunger advocate if a bill that was approved by the Legislature on Thursday is signed by Gov. Phil Murphy.
A so-called Food Insecurity Advocate would consolidate the responsibility of oversight of food aid programs that are administered across several state agencies.
“This is remarkable and groundbreaking. It’s not being done anywhere in America,” said Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey, a leading statewide advocacy group headquartered in Bergen County. “It will get people in social services on the same page, working in the same direction.”
Asked whether Murphy was expected to sign the bill, a spokesperson said the governor doesn’t comment on pending legislation.
For decades, LaTourette said, there’s been a lack of coordination and communication among state agencies administering federal programs such as food stamps (now known as SNAP for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children).
It’s a similar situation in Pennsylvania, advocates say, where the Department of Human Services administers SNAP, and the Department of Health covers WIC.
“You have all these departments with different acronyms serving the same population who don’t speak the same bureaucratic language and don’t understand how each other functions,” LaTourette said.
A Food Insecurity Advocate would make connections “all across the board, letting people know what’s going on in terms of anti-hunger activities,” including which grants might be coming in and how people in different agencies and offices can partner, she added.
LaTourette said that the advocate would be part of the state’s Department of the Treasury.
In addition to the advocate proposal, the Legislature sent other hunger-fighting bills to Murphy’s desk, including one that would create a mobile app to help recipients manage SNAP benefits.
People would be able to check balances, submit information, and contact caseworkers on their phones.
The Legislature also sent Murphy two bills that would increase state administrative spending on school meals, both during the summer and the school year.
The legislation allots $10 million for the advocate, the SNAP app, and the meals, said a spokesperson for the Office of General Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D., Middlesex), who championed the bill package. His office also credited assembly Democrats Eliana Pintor Marin and Shanique Speight, both of whom represent portions of Newark and Belleville, for their aid and support.
Yet another anti-hunger bill sent to Murphy sets aside an additional $600,000 to address under-enrollment in SNAP programs. The legislation would identify children who receive free and reduced-price school meals, and learn whether their families are eligible for SNAP benefits that they might not be accessing. SNAP is typically undersubscribed, with many people eschewing it or simply unaware that they are eligible for benefits, experts say.
In a statement, Coughlin said, “These programs are meant to serve the same families ... but ... without an overseeing, centralized safety net ... some families go under-enrolled and ... miss out on critical food aid ... . This bill package ... works to address the hunger gap.”
In his own statement, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker described the bills as a “bold relief package.” He added, “The COVID-19 public health and economic crisis has only magnified systemic injustices in our nation’s food system. With a focus on addressing childhood hunger and boosting SNAP benefits, this ... [legislation] will bring forth critical changes to support New Jersey’s anti-hunger programs during this pandemic and beyond.”
Booker is working with U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.), a nationally known anti-hunger advocate, to introduce legislation that would mandate the White House create a conference that would work to try to end hunger in the United States.
Fred C. Wasiak, president and CEO of the Food Bank of South Jersey, headquartered in Pennsauken, also praised the legislative package, explaining that the pandemic increased hunger in the area, bringing the food-insecure population to more than 170,000 in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Salem Counties, of which more than 60,000 are children.
State figures project that 1.2 million New Jerseyans, or 13.5%, would be experiencing food insecurity in 2021, up from 11.3% in 2018. Around 33% of food-insecure New Jerseyans are children.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.