A New Jersey food bank is pressing Monmouth County to pay it $725,000 in new federal funding for pandemic-related hunger relief after the county denied the organization a share of the last round of assistance under the CARES Act.
Fulfill, which serves Monmouth and Ocean counties, wrote to the county commissioners on Wednesday, calling for the release of funds it says will be needed to feed people who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, residents who are expected to use food banks at the current rate for at least the next two years.
The food bank, which has reported a 40% increase in food demand and a 250% increase in food prices because of the pandemic, said it was entitled to earlier federal funding from the CARES Act via the county, but the county refused its request, saying the money was not available under the federal program.
Counties play by different rules
The county’s policy was at odds with neighboring Ocean County, which gave Fulfill some $355,000 last fall, a fact that had no effect on Monmouth’s position, the food bank said.
“As the need in Monmouth County continues to be high and as the county considers the use of the next round of federal funding, Fulfill asks that the food-insecure of Monmouth County not be forgotten,” it said in a letter. “We look to the county to follow the lead of Ocean not only to help mitigate the cost of the additional meals provided over the past year by Fulfill, but also to help our underserved communities with food this upcoming year.”
A spokeswoman for the county did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Fulfill and New Jersey’s other major food banks expect demand for food to remain at current record highs for at least the next two years, as many people remain unemployed and heavily indebted even if the pandemic gradually recedes with the increasing availability of vaccines.
Hunger on the rise
The food banks have seen demand for food assistance surge by around 40% over the past year, as the newly unemployed, many for the first time in their lives, turn to pantries and soup kitchens for help.
In July, Gov. Phil Murphy announced $20 million in CARES Act funding for New Jersey’s six food banks. He has proposed $25 million in state funding in his budget for the coming fiscal year starting in July.
The state’s largest food bank, the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, received about 63% of the CARES funds that were distributed by the state, said its president, Carlos Rodriguez. It also received CARES funds from some of the 15 counties in which it works, he said.
With President Joe Biden signing the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 into law on March 11, Fulfill is trying to ensure that it does not also miss out on the latest federal money, said its president, Kim Guadagno.
“The commissioners don’t recognize how much we’re doing in the county, and I wanted to let them know that,” Guadagno said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News. “This is the letter that we sent to the county because this is the beginning of their budget cycle. Just a week ago, Biden signed the relief bill so we know that the counties will be getting millions of dollars in extra funding, and we did not want to be forgotten this year.”
Guadagno, a Republican who served as lieutenant governor, said Fulfill has provided more than $1 million in grants to increase capacity at 141 food pantries and emergency feeding stations during the pandemic, and has kept some restaurants operating by paying them a stipend to feed hungry people.
“We want the county commissioners to understand that we are doing a lot for not only their hungry and the food-insecure but also for their small businesses through our restaurant program,” she said.
Keeping request ‘reasonable’
The requested funding would be 12% of the amount that Fulfill spent on food and support for Monmouth County residents last year. Asked why she is asking for 12%, Guadagno said she was “trying to be reasonable.”
Over the past year Fulfill said it provided 3.3 million more meals to people in Monmouth County than it did in the previous year, at a cost of $4.7 million. It serves about 215,000 people overall, about half of whom live in Monmouth County.
Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) endorsed the new funding request, saying that minority communities in Monmouth towns including Asbury Park and Long Branch have been underserved during the pandemic.
“I am concerned to hear that Monmouth County has not issued funding to Fulfill even though they have continuously helped our food-insecure residents during these challenging times,” Gopal said in a statement. “Systematically, communities of color have consistently faced difficulties due to unjust policies. I urge Monmouth County to provide funding for the organization that provides services to a community that needs it most.”