With job losses caused by COVID-19, many northern New Jersey households are struggling to afford food, leaving local food banks overwhelmed.
“Many families live paycheck to paycheck, and when the paycheck is gone, it’s catastrophic,” says Bergen County Freeholder Tracy Zur.
September is national Hunger Action Month, and Bergen County recently started a Food Security Task Force to encourage donations to food pantries and help the pantries work together and connect clients to other social services. Holy Name Medical Center is helping by spreading the word through billboard messages.
How can you help? The best way is to donate money to food banks, which can use it to efficiently buy food in bulk, according to Freeholder Zur. Many pantries also welcome volunteer help and food donations; but check first, because some have limited those activities in light of the pandemic.
Hunger and nutrition are health issues, says Michele Acito, executive vice president/chief nursing officer at Holy Name Medical Center. Too often, families on limited budgets choose high-fat, unhealthy fast food because it’s more affordable.
“The long-term implications are an increase in diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol and hypertension,” says Ms. Acito. “It’s important for people working in health care to explain to the community and their patients the value of nutritious food.”
Another problem that Ms. Acito sees is that many children receive meals at school; now that COVID-19 has disrupted school attendance, those children have less access to nutritious food.
Food insecurity doesn’t just affect low-income communities. There are more than 80 food pantries in Bergen County, many of them church-based, and most have been hit by at least a 50 percent increase in need since the coronavirus hit - even in affluent towns, Freeholder Zur said.
“Most people don’t realize their neighbors are making these choices between medicine and food,” Freeholder Zur said. “This pandemic has shone a spotlight on what the issue looks like.”
The Task Force has created an interactive map to help households in need find food pantries. It also is encouraging local food pantries to work together. For example, one pantry recently received a donation of more milk than it needed; it was able to share the surplus with three other food pantries, Ms. Zur said.
Freeholder Zur also hopes to help small pantries link up with larger resources, such as the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, which supplies pantries around the state.
And the County is encouraging food pantries to find ways to connect clients to other social services, such as job assistance, mental health care, federal food benefits or affordable child care.
“Food insecurity is a symptom, not the underlying disease,” Freeholder Zur says.
Freeholder Zur also would like to see more fresh fruits and vegetables at food pantries. To that end, she encourages individuals to think beyond canned goods when making donations. She is currently encouraging many to pick an extra bag of apples for a pantry.
For more information on local food pantries, check Emergency Food Providers in Bergen County