Food drives are big during the winter months: Around the holidays, it has become a tradition to pitch in and help those in need. While these efforts are certainly important and impactful, food insecurity doesn’t go away come January.
More than 900,000 New Jersey residents rely on food banks to feed their families, and it’s estimated that nearly 10 percent of the state’s population lives in areas that lack ready access to stores that sell healthy, affordable foods.
The impact of hunger is exacerbated in low-income communities by the lack of access to stores that provide good-quality, healthy food like fresh produce. Residents living in these areas are forced to buy what’s available, not necessarily what’s healthy, negatively impacting their health and well-being.
Numerous studies show that obesity, diabetes and other diet-related diseases are disproportionately higher in neighborhoods where residents lack access to nutritious foods. And these areas are also cut off from the economic benefits that accompany anchor supermarkets: steady jobs, increased property values and additional retail investment.
While the need for more supermarkets in New Jersey is clear, New Jersey also has an estimated 5,600 corner stores and bodegas around the state, making small retailers an efficient and cost-effective infrastructure to increase fresh, nutritious food options.
The New Jersey Healthy Corner Store Initiative — a joint partnership of The Food Trust, American Heart Association and the New Jersey YMCA State Alliance — is beginning to make headway, using these existing stores to improve access to healthy food by working with corner-store owners to help them profitably stock, market and sell nutritious, affordable food items to their customers.
Through the initiative, community partners provide retailers the tools they need to dedicate more shelf space to fresh foods and place signs and labels around the store that help their customers recognize healthier choices. The program is helping turn these stores into greater community resources, yielding impressive results in both improving healthy food access and generating new local jobs.
Legislation is pending in Trenton — the Healthy Small Food Retailer Act (A4505/S3043) — that would create a state fund enabling the New Jersey Healthy Corner Store program to be expanded statewide. I encourage the Legislature and governor to act swiftly on this legislation.
All New Jerseyans deserve access to nutritious foods in their communities during the holidays and all throughout the year.
John Weidman is deputy executive director of The Food Trust.