Approximately 11.5% of the US population currently suffers from food insecurity according to the US Department of Agriculture, meaning they are without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. In New Jersey, several counties surpass this national rate, including: Cumberland (12.6%), Essex (12.7%), Salem (11.3%), Atlantic (11.4%), and Cape May (11.7%) counties.
This issue of food insecurity is widespread, and without a simple solution, but Jeanine Cava believes that better collaboration between all sectors of the food system is vital in creating long-term systemic change that can help alleviate the problem.
In 2020, Cava co-founded the NJ Food Democracy Collaborative (FDC), an initiative focused on building resilience and equity in the state’s food and agriculture systems through fostering partnerships, informing policy, and optimizing public programs.
In May, working with partners in the collaborative, Cava submitted a 32-page response to a New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) request for suggestions on addressing food deserts and food insecurity.
“Although we are the Garden State and many regions enjoy robust agricultural economies and diverse, nearly year-round production and access to locally grown foods, large portions of New Jersey’s population are unable to participate in our state’s local food economy,” Cava explains, citing a lack of equity in the state’s food system, linked to and exacerbated by a lack of robust cross-sector collaborations.
“We need to look at things systematically and not in these siloed ways,” she says.
Since its launch, the FDC has grown to more than 250 individuals from 22 sectors of food production and distribution. On Dec. 3, the collaborative will host the first annual NJ State of the Food System Symposium to discuss the interconnected challenges of the food system.
One particular area of focus for the collaborative is to increase local producer-to-consumer infrastructure, particularly for low-income communities across the state.
“We have so many people who rely on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), WIC (Women, Infants and Children nutrition program), and food banks, but there is a lack of connecting the dots to the local food,” Cava says. “We want to help find ways the state can incentivize and support efforts to connect programs like SNAP to our local food economy.”
Ultimately, Cava says that the focus needs to go beyond supporting just the emergency food sector such as food banks, and instead create systemic change.
“Right now, the Garden State isn’t a garden for everyone. We need to focus on the areas that create long-term sustainable food security and reduce the need for so many residents to have to visit food banks,” Cava says. “We can create economically inclusive food systems for everyone in our state.”
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