TASK Hosts Thought Leaders in the Fight Against Hunger
On Friday, September 17, TASK hosted a Hunger Action Day event to address the state of food insecurity in New Jersey and what actions are being taken – nationally, state-wide and locally – to fight hunger.
Hunger Action Day, a nation-wide effort to raise awareness about food insecurity and help fight hunger, is a yearly event. This year TASK, in partnership with Hunger Free New Jersey, an organization focused on advocacy and activism, convened an esteemed group of speakers who are leading hunger relief efforts in the state.
Keynote speaker, First Lady Tammy Murphy, has been vocal about the need for state-assisted food aid and expanded benefits, particularly in light of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The issue of hunger and food insecurity is one that, sadly over the course of the pandemic, has grown to affect more families, many of whom never before had to access help,” said Murphy.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, TASK has seen a substantial increase in the demand for food. According to statistics from the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, roughly 1.2 million people in New Jersey are facing food insecurity. Here in Mercer County, estimates from Feeding America show that nearly 50,000 people struggle with hunger. At both the state and local levels, roughly 20% of those affected are children. A sluggish economy, increasing food prices and the impending end to many pandemic emergency benefits are all contributing to an unprecedented hunger crisis.
As a result, TASK has seen its meal production numbers rise, at times, to more than 70% of its pre-pandemic rate. Today, TASK prepares and serves roughly 8,000 meals a week, via meal service at its Escher Street hub and 32 community partner sites across the surrounding area, stretching from Princeton, New Jersey, to Morrisville, Pennsylvania.
“We all recognize that right now food insecurity is a crisis and a pandemic unto itself. It’s an insidious enemy and one that we have to be diligent in the fight against each and every day,” said Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.
To that end, speakers at the event noted the substantial strides that federal, state and local agencies have taken to help alleviate hunger as well as provide greater access to nutritious food across the state.
Elisa Neira, Deputy Commissioner from the Department of Human Services, lauded the recent federal increase to SNAP benefits, emphasizing that the increase would now give people more access to nutritious, healthy food, which is traditionally more expensive.
Assembly Speaker Coughlin touted the State’s role in developing an app for users of the SNAP program, making it easier for people to manage their benefits; adding funding to the school summer breakfast program; and the pending bill to create a New Jersey Office of Food Insecurity, which will be a “consequential force” to help bring together the strategies and people needed to help address hunger.
Representative Bonnie Watson-Coleman, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, was pleased to share that $2 billion in appropriations had been directed to New Jersey to help with food insecurity, particularly to benefit children and families.
Secretary of Agriculture Doug Fisher made a point to emphasize the importance of connecting people to nutritious food, especially produce farmed in the State.
Similarly, County Executive Brian Hughes celebrated TASK’s neighbor Capital City Farm, the County’s first urban farm which is putting out hundreds of pounds of fresh produce each week. But many speakers noted that hunger is a complex issue and solutions to address it must be comprehensive. Said Adele LaTourette, Director of Hunger Free New Jersey, “People in poverty are not just hungry. They have issues with housing, issues with healthcare… It’s not just a single issue. We have to start looking more wholistically at hunger and poverty. We have to build congressional support and state legislative support. And we have to educate our neighbors.”
Many noted that’s where TASK plays an important role in Trenton and Mercer County. While TASK’s main focus is food, Executive Director Joyce Campbell was keen to point out that issues like the complicated process to secure identification – which is the ticket to things like housing, medical care and benefits like SNAP – as well as addiction, nutrition and education all play an important role. TASK, which boasts an adult education program, job search and computer coaching, creative arts classes, case management and a peer recovery specialist, makes it a priority to nourish each patron – mind, body and soul. Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora said TASK is like “home.”
Assemblyman Anthony Verrelli noted it will take the community’s support to continue to make progress in the fight against hunger. “It does take a village,” he said. “We need friends and we need communities to help each other. We are all partners in this fight together.”
Noted Senator Shirley Turner, “During this pandemic, people have been generous and it’s brought out the best in people. But when the pandemic ends, we need to remind people that hunger still exists, and we still have to take care of the needs that people have.”