By John Burton
RED BANK – The face of hunger is the face of your neighbor, a family member, of children and seniors.
It’s a growing problem that needs to be addressed, those combating the issue want people to realize.
“All of us together need to work to end hunger in New Jersey,” Kathleen DiChiara, president and CEO of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, told a large crowd gathered at Count Basie Theatre on Monday, Sept. 30, for Soul of Hunger, a daylong forum on the issue of hunger.
The event, sponsored by rocker Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Foundation and the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, featured panel discussions with Gov. Chris Christie and celebrity chef and restaurateur Tom Collicchio, who has been active with antihunger campaigns, and moderated by NBC’s Willie Geist. The event also featured a group of women who offered their own stories about dealing with food and financial insecurities. Earlier in the day, there was a viewing of A Place at the Table, filmmaker Lori Silverbush’s documentary that explores hunger in the U.S.
One-in-6 Americans goes to bed hungry; about 863,642 New Jersey residents receive and rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly called food stamps, to put food on the table. That’s an increase of 50,000 from a year ago. One-in-10 Monmouth County residents are being served by the Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, participants noted.
“Statistics about hunger are only numbers with the tears wiped away,” said DiChiara, as the panel of women told their stories.
Martha, who didn’t give her last name and lives in the Port Monmouth section of Middletown, works part-time. She said she was told by case workers that owning a 10-year-old car, valued at $2,000, put her at risk of losing her SNAP benefits and thereby putting her and her children at risk of going hungry.
Chris, a 47-year-old single mother of five boys, works as an emergency-department nurse, but is unable to work as much as she would like because of family obligations. She has had to apply for food stamps. “I never thought I would be in the position” with a home in foreclosure, she said.
Amelia, a U.S. Army veteran suffering from a seizure condition, has a 6-year-old son diagnosed with kidney disease who is awaiting a transplant. The family is straining to just get by, she said.
“I didn’t think it would end this way, that’s for sure,” Amelia said of her life as a military veteran.
“Nobody ever thinks they would be in this position,” Chris added, “including me.”
Since the 2008 recession and with Super Storm Sandy last year compounding the situation, “it has become personalized” with people struggling and people becoming more aware as they begin to see those they know in this difficult position, Christie told Geist.
“It’s not that the programs aren’t available,” the governor said. “It’s people aren’t accessing them,” either unaware of their availability or unwilling for a variety of reasons to seek them out.
The best strategy, Christie said, is for public and private sectors to work together on “parallel tracks” to help those in need.
Prior to Tuesday’s federal government shutdown, some at the conference suspected that a shutdown would have a real impact on programs such as the U.S. Department of Health’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
“This goes far beyond our knee-jerk, liberal wanting to help each other,” Collicchio said, adding that it is a problem that has economic, educational and societal ramifications and requires federal and state officials to make it a priority.
“Food is an apolitical issue,” said Bon Jovi, via a videotaped message, agreeing that government needs to play a more active role and not just expect private sector charities to take the lead. “Food pantries should be a safety net and not a replacement for programs.”
Bon Jovi has established his own private program to help feed the hungry. His Soul Foundation and Soul Kitchen, a Monmouth Street nonprofit restaurant where diners offer donations for their meals, supports the operation and antihunger programs.