NJ Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin fights food insecurity

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Shortly after being elected to the state legislature, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin decided he wanted to do something that went beyond his legislative duties and required more than his “fancy job title.” So he stole a page from the script of fellow campaigner Sen. Joseph Vitale, who devotes time to Habitat for Humanity, and decided to build on initiatives that serve his community.

Coughlin said earlier this month that he’s always been concerned about food insecurity and the “fact that people aren’t getting anything to eat” is something that “just bugs me.”

But the electrifying moment came from a standard opening event at the St. Vincent De Paul Center in South Amboy, one of the towns in his Middlesex County borough. The shelves in the new space are full, he said, but “that’s not the point.”

“It was the long, long line of people outside, snaking around this building and the next, and then it really hit,” he said.

what is done

Coughlin spoke with his chief of staff and devised a fundraiser called the Bowl for Hunger. A dozen years later, the event has raised more than $300,000. But since becoming speaker of the assembly, the third most powerful elected position in New Jersey, in 2018, he has expanded his efforts, spearheading several statewide anti-hunger bills.

This legislation includes increased funding for food banks and food aid programs, initiatives to alleviate food deserts, and the creation of a New Jersey Food Waste Task Force, which is why Coughlin believes New Jersey is a leader in the fight against food insecurity.

Sen. Steven Oroho, R-Sussex, noted that while many celebrate the holiday season with friends and family, we “need to remember that too many New Jerseyers don’t have the luxury of a feast on their table, or even a simple meal “.

“We know that food insecurity affects children, families and seniors not just on holidays, but every day,” said Oroho, the Senate Minority Leader. “I’m grateful for the bipartisan commitment at the Statehouse to work together to end hunger at home in New Jersey, showing the nation that compassion and decency is something we can all agree on.”

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Coughlin noted that $85 million was included in last year’s food insecurity budget and part of that was $1 million distributed to 11 colleges across the state.

“It never occurred to me that there are thousands of college students struggling with food insecurity, not just struggling to pay tuition. A part of it, I guess, is that demographics have changed,” he said. “More people are facing economic challenges every day, so this is a way to help them change that. So now we have food supplies at the colleges.”

The fight against hunger is part of the country’s economic development plan. According to a report by the Economic Development Agency released earlier this year, more than 1.3 million New Jerseyers live in areas considered “food deserts,” places that have limited access due to poverty and a lack of shops and access to public transportation healthy foods exist.

The creation of the Office of the Food Security Advocate last year and the work it does is a step toward solving these issues, and Coughlin, a lead sponsor of the bill establishing the office, hopes other states will follow suit. He noted that this year saw the return of the White House food conference, the first since the Nixon administration in 1969.

“The President of the United States said, ‘Let’s end food hunger by 2030,’ and he made an incredibly salient point when he said, ‘If you can’t feed yourself and you can’t feed your family, then what the hell is something else important?’ And he’s right,” Coughlin said.

Why access to food is important

The problems New Jersey is facing are not due to a food shortage but to a food access problem, Coughlin said. This became an even bigger problem during the pandemic with historic unemployment claims resulting in many pantry donors becoming recipients of their support. Usage of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called SNAP or food stamps, increased 23% during the pandemic, according to the Hunger Free New Jersey group.

Efforts reach people of all ages. Coughlin noted that the low-cost lunch and breakfast program became free in 2019 and then the eligibility threshold changed to give access to 26,000 more children.

Coughlin wants to expand it further, for everyone, because while “there are a lot of people who don’t need it, one of the real challenges you face in overcoming food insecurity is the stigma that comes with it,” he said. And kids in particular “don’t want to stand out as the kid with the free lunch,” he added, but they still face challenges, especially on weekends and in the summer.

However, it’s not just children who face setbacks, Coughlin said.

People aren’t using the services already available like SNAP and WIC, the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children.

Though food supplies have increased during the pandemic, Coughlin said there are only about 81% participants in SNAP and 58% in WIC, which he describes as an “amazingly challenging number.”

Next steps for New Jersey

Coughlin is quick to admit that he’s “not the first to think about it” and that he “certainly didn’t put in place the infrastructure for it.”

Coughlin said food stocks across the state, like the Community Food Bank and the Food Bank of Southern New Jersey, should get credit and continued support because they’re doing “tremendous work.” He noted that Office of Food Security Advocate Mark Dinglasan worked at CUMAC, the Center of United Methodist Aid to the Community in Paterson, so his hands-on experience is invaluable as the “fight against food insecurity is real.”

“I’ve seen firsthand how great the need remains on the front lines,” Dinglasan said. “The best way New Jerseyers can help is to reach out to local organizations serving on the frontlines and ask what they need.”

Coughlin said that’s just a starting point, although, and it’s important to “make sure people get what they need right away” and then “make sure they understand the need to use the welfare services that are available,” like WIC, SNAP, and free lunch and breakfast programs in schools.

After that, Coughlin hopes to be able to help them “with other programs that might be out there: utility assistance, child tax credits, all these things that are available that can help people because they’re facing real challenges.”

Dinglasan went on to say that many organizations are still serving nearly the same number of families as they were at the height of the pandemic, and that his office is working on ways to address this by developing outreach plans to increase enrollment in existing services and Make plans to close gaps You already know about and are implementing partnerships with the private sector to create food security.

Coughlin knows the challenge isn’t something that “never goes away,” because “as many days as there are, there’s someone who needs help,” which is why he considers it an ongoing priority.

“If you want to be a great state, great country or whatever, there are a few things you have to do and I think they’re more of a moral obligation than a governmental function. I think people’s diet is at the top of that list,” he said. “If you don’t, don’t you dare call yourself awesome.”