Red Bank hunger panel provides food for thought

Staff Writer

 A panel of area women discuss their personal struggles with food insecurity during the “Soul of Hunger” event at the Count Basie Theatre on Sept. 30.  KEITH HEUMILLER/STAFF A panel of area women discuss their personal struggles with food insecurity during the “Soul of Hunger” event at the Count Basie Theatre on Sept. 30. KEITH HEUMILLER/STAFF For the one in seven New Jerseyans who don’t know where their next meal will come from, hunger is a problem of resources. For the countless organizations and advocates working to end hunger throughout the state, it’s a problem of image.

“It’s been demonized,” culinary celebrity and anti-hunger advocate Tom Colicchio said during the “Soul of Hunger” roundtable discussion in Red Bank on Sept. 30.

“We talk about takers, we talk about people who are sort of deadbeats and those unwilling to work. We really need to change the conversation away from that. … We need to talk about this idea of investing in the future.”

Hundreds packed into the Count Basie Theatre last week to view Colicchio’s documentary, “A Seat at the Table,” which chronicles the trials of parents and children across the country struggling to live without enough to eat.

After the screening, Colicchio, along with Gov. Chris Christie, MSNBC anchor Willie Geist and a number of area nonprofit leaders, participated in a series of panel discussions on the causes and potential solutions to a problem that currently affects an estimated 14 percent of New Jersey residents. For children, the rate is higher — 18.6 percent experience food insecurity each day.

Participants included local advocates Carlos Rodriguez, executive director of the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, and Mimi Box, executive director of the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation.

To start the afternoon, a group of nine local women, including working professionals and disabled veterans, took the stage to tell their own stories of loss, uncertainty and frustrations with the bureaucracy of assistance programs. The event, cosponsored by the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation, the New Jersey Anti- Hunger Coalition and the FoodBank, featured photos taken by each of the women to give a firsthand perspective of the struggles they face.

Martha, a disabled Port Monmouth woman with two adult children, said she started receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits following superstorm Sandy, though she applied six months earlier. Now, she said, she is in danger of losing those benefits in the next few months because she works occasionally with the Monmouth County Board of Elections and has a 10-year-old car.

“I was told my car was worth over $2,000, and because of that I couldn’t get the food stamps,” she said.

During a panel discussion among local advocates and nonprofit volunteers, Community FoodBank of New Jersey President Kathleen DiChiara said the economic downturn and the lingering effects of superstorm Sandy have created a significant need throughout the state. More than 863,000 residents are receiving SNAP benefits — an increase of 50,000 over last year, she said. Since 2008, the number of unemployed has more than doubled to 400,000.

With such a wide prevalence of economic need and food insecurity, DiChiara agreed with other speakers that the “message needs to change.”

“People are talked about as lazy. Those of us on the front lines know that isn’t so,” she said, explaining that only 36,000 families receive welfare benefits and those benefits have not increased since 1988. “The working poor make up such a large proportion of those who regularly go without enough food.” The panel participants agreed that social programs like SNAP need to be expanded and modified to help individuals provide for themselves.

Colicchio said judging a food bank by how many meals it provides is like judging a hospital based on how much medicine it gives out.

“We’re managing,” he said. “We’re not talking about, ‘How do we fix this.’ ”

In a prerecorded video, Jon Bon Jovi called for a collaborative effort between philanthropic groups, nonprofits and all levels of government.

“They have to come together and communicate with each other,” he said. “In my opinion, food pantries should be a safety net, not a replacement for programs.”

Hunger is closely tied to obesity, as less nutritious, calorie-packed foods are more affordable than fruits and vegetables, Colicchio said.

The associated impacts lead to an estimated $160 billion in annual health care costs. There is also a direct correlation between hunger and poor academic performance, he said.

As federal cuts to the SNAP program will lead to a projected loss of nearly 2 billion meals beginning this year, many panel members said it is more important than ever to pressure elected officials into making hunger a “national priority.”

While Christie acknowledged that the issue’s complexity does not easily lend itself to sound-bite politics, he said an increased focus on the long-term economic impacts explained by Colicchio will change more minds than an emotional approach.

“We have an obligation to articulate these things in a way that can help to build support,” he said, calling on elected officials to “take more risks” and ignore what members of their own party or the opposition party will think.

Panel members said eradicating the stigma of hunger is equally important, as it will encourage more people to apply for available benefits. New Jersey is 48th in the nation in terms of individuals who qualify for SNAP benefits but don’t receive them, Colicchio said. Raising the participation rate of eligible residents by only 10 percent could bring an additional $1.2 million into the state’s economy, he said.

All of these initiatives require an effective rebranding of hunger in the public eye, panel members said.

Christie, who participated in a “Jersey boy” panel alongside Elizabeth native Colicchio and Ridgewood native Geist, said people’s opinions on hunger begin to change when they see the problem in their own communities.

“While Ocean and Monmouth have their pockets of poverty, they are perceived as fairly affluent counties,” Christie said. “When you start seeing the demand in those counties go that high, then it becomes personalized to a lot of folks.”

As of June, nearly 18,000 families in Monmouth County were participating in SNAP, an 8.2 percent increase over last year. Nearly 23,000 Ocean County families were receiving assistance, up approximately 17 percent from 2012.

Twelve-year-old Claire Taylor of Ocean Township said last week’s event inspired her to get more involved in the fight against hunger.

“I thought it was inspiring to see all the people who take the effort to go and volunteer,” she said after watching the film. “Even though it’s a bad thing that people aren’t getting food, it brings people together to make a change. That shows potential for the United States. They are working toward a better world.”