March is National Nutrition Month. For a lot of us in Essex County, this month may prompt us eat a little healthier, or incorporate more whole foods in our diets. But National Nutrition Month should also serve as a reminder that for far too many of our neighbors, hunger is a life-threatening reality.
Beyond the immediate physical effects of hunger, it can also have significant long-term consequences. Proper nutrition is the foundation for a child’s future physical and mental health, academic achievement, and economic productivity. Children who are malnourished—even briefly—can experience irreversible cognitive and physical impairments.
Hunger also significantly impacts seniors, which can lead to a variety of nutritional deficiencies with serious consequences, such as decreased immune response, longer hospital stays, reduced activity levels, impaired physical function, premature institutionalization, and higher risks of diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and other age-related illnesses.
Federal nutrition programs work to provide food for people who might otherwise go hungry. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, widely known as food stamps) is the first line of defense for low-income Americans facing hunger. Roughly, 47 million Americans receive food stamps. Experts report that nearly half the current recipients of food stamps are children, and another 20 percent are elderly or disabled. In New Jersey, that comes to roughly 559,000 people, including 16,000 veterans receiving food stamps, according to Census figures.
According to the New Jersey Department of Human Services, there was a 25 percent increase in the number of people receiving food stamps from 2010 to 2011. And when unemployment rises, so does the number of people needing food assistance. In Montclair, the unemployment rate rose to 1500 half way through 2013, the first increase three years, according to statistics provided by New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development. Essex County’s overall unemployment rate is 10.3 percent compared to the state’s 8.6 percent and Montclair’s is 7.1 percent.
The recently passed 2014 Farm Bill cuts roughly $9 billion from the SNAP program, and plans for an additional $11 billion to be cut back over three years, as stimulus funding for the program expires. The first $5 billion of that stimulus money ended in October and the rest will cease to exist by 2016. These cut backs will have a big impact on food assistance recipients. In October, when the initial $5 billion in stimulus money expired, a family of four saw a reduction of $36 per month—roughly 23 meals—according to Feeding American, a national coalition of food banks. The additional $9 billion in cuts means that close to a million households will see a reduction in benefits as high as $90 a month.
Even before the initial stimulus money ran out in November, food banks reported having difficulty meeting demand. Since 2006, the number of Americans receiving food aid from pantries and similar services has gone up almost 50 percent, according to Feeding America. Although the new Farm Bill allots for an additional $200 million in funding for America’s food banks, it is not going to be enough to meet the increasing demand. In November 2013, the Human Needs Food Pantry, located in Montclair, served 400 households or approximately 975 people. Of those, 198 are homebound due to physical disabilities, and thankfully, this food bank is still able to provide home delivery to them.
Support National Nutrition Month by donating or volunteering at a local food bank, or even run a food drive of your own. Most banks accept monetary donations and non-perishable food items. Find your local food bank.