If you travel more than a mile to a supermarket, supermarket, or large grocery store with healthy and affordable food options in an urban area, and more than 20 miles in a rural area, you are living in what the USDA defines as a “food desert.”
This lack of access affects nearly 17 million Americans, according to the USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas. The data also shows that the number of people who live within half a mile or more of dining options in urban areas, or 10 miles in rural areas, increases that number to more than 53 million Americans, including New Jersey residents.
In January 2021, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed the Desert Food Relief Act, part of the Economic Recovery Act, which will provide about $240 million in funding to combat this problem in the state.
The Desert Food Relief Act provides tax breaks for supermarkets and grocery stores that open in underserved areas, as well as grants, loans, and other aid for food retailers of all sizes to operate in these areas.
The New Jersey Community Food Bank estimates that 800,000 residents in the state are dealing with food insecurity, and about 200,000 of them are children.
Robert Brown, 53, of Newark, New Jersey, says he travels two miles from his home to ShopRite without a car, telling ABC News that prices and options are a factor.
“I live 20 blocks away, but we have a shop downstairs, where I live, but [prices are] I come here, there’s no need to spend my money there, and I get a little bit of nothing when I can have everything I need,” Brown said.
Katrina Mosley, 45, says she has to go a step further, as the two-mile trip to ShopRite is her second grocery shopping trip of the day.
“I started at 8 am, went to Walmart, came home like 11:30, rested a bit, got on the bus… I got here like 12 things, 12 or one thing. I shopped. I spent my time in the store browsing things, and now I’m waiting for transportation to go home.”
Mosley relies on two different bus routes, taxis, and relatives to pick her up, as she takes her day off from work to feed her family of four, including a daughter with a baby on the way.
“I go to Walmart to get the bulk of the meat because it lasts, you can make like… one of their packages of meat you can make like 2-3 servings, it all depends on how you do it,” she said.
Relocation is also an issue for Brown, given that some options are not practical. “If I were to try to take the bus with this, it would be too much, and it would be too much,” she said.
Tara Colton, executive vice president of economic security for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, says addressing food deserts, a product of structural racism, neighborhood redevelopment (withholding services from certain communities) and divestment, isn’t as simple as building a supermarket.
“You can live right next door to the coolest market or the farmers market, but if you can’t buy the food that’s there, or they don’t accept federal feeding programs like snap, you can’t get to it,” Colton said. .
Sustainability of the Economic Development Authority The & Serve NJ Initiative began as a $2 million pilot program to help with food security, in conjunction with supporting the state’s restaurant industry in 2020. The program has evolved into a $45 million initiative, which pays restaurants to deliver ready-to-eat meals directly to those in need.
Colton told ABC News, “I often say it’s not about getting people to eat, it’s about getting food to people. And there are a lot of ways to do that. They can go to a big building and buy it and put it in the van, but you can also bring it to them centrally.”
It promotes the impact of the program. “The dollar you spend keeps the restaurant open, workers work, and gives people who often don’t have access to this type of food a healthy, fresh, nutritious homemade meal,” she said.
For those like Moseley who prefer to cook their own meals, despite the miles-long journey to multiple supermarkets, the focus is on doing what is essential for her family.
“Those I have to worry about,” she said, “so that’s what I do for them, shop. Get it done, out of the way.”