The Star-Ledger recently featured a report on communities known as “food deserts” in New Jersey. I commend the staff of the Ledger for acknowledging the magnitude of this problem and bringing it to the public’s attention. Addressing the problem of inadequate access to nutrition has been a focus of my tenure as a legislator, and I am proud that the state and national governments are taking steps to find solutions to this problem.
Earlier this year, the United States Department of Agriculture announced that New Jersey will receive funds to expand its Fresh Fruit & Vegetable program in our schools. Participating schools will provide their students with fresh produce each school day. In Union County, ten schools have been selected to participate in this federal grant.
I am thrilled that this important program will benefit even more children in the upcoming school year. Even though New Jersey is the Garden State, 134 of our communities have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. These food desert communities lack supermarkets and leave residents with no choice but to rely on convenience stores or fast food restaurants for food. This has contributed to a nationwide epidemic of childhood obesity and malnutrition, and diminished the quality of life for an entire generation of children. By having fresh food served at school daily, children will not only be eating better, but will develop better eating habits, which will help them make better food choices as adults.
The USDA’s Fresh Fruit & Vegetable program will also serve to augment steps I have recently taken to help improve food choices in underserved communities. Last year, I introduced a bill which Governor Christie signed into law to allow vacant city lands to be used for farming. In conjunction with the passage of this law, I started Come Grow with Us, Union County, which has already helped plant flourishing vegetable gardens in Elizabeth, Roselle, Union, Plainfield, Linden, and New Providence. These gardens are beneficial in many ways, from expanding food choices to replenishing food pantries to decreasing urban blight. The success of urban farming through Come Grow with Us, Union County has exceeded my expectations, and the benefits will continue for years to come.
Another essential piece to solving the problem of food deserts is getting fresh produce to communities without supermarkets or farmer’s markets. To help fill this void, I have sponsored a bill to implement mobile fresh produce markets through the state Department of Agriculture. If signed into law, this bill will bring fresh fruits and vegetables to adults in underserved communities, just like the USDA program will do for school-aged children.