The Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders, Sheriff Joe Cryan, Mayor J. Christian Bollwage, and a number of other elected officials, educational, clergy and non-profit leaders today joined with Senator Raymond J. Lesniak in kicking off the Senator’s pilot program which leverages private donations to assist food stamp recipients to either find a job or participate in a training or work-related program that maintains their benefits.
The pilot program comes amidst news that as many as 11,000 -20,000 New Jersey residents—and as many as 1,500 in Union County—could lose their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by November. This is the result of the Christie Administration’s decision not to seek an extension (or waiver) of benefits from the Federal Government for single, able-bodied adults (18-49 years of age) without dependents who receive SNAP benefits. The announcement was also timely given that March is National Nutrition Month, a campaign that focuses on the importance of food choices.
“The pilot program is the right thing to do, not only for Union County residents who receive SNAP benefits, but for all of New Jersey’s residents who may lack the means to put food on their table,” said Freeholder Chairman Bruce H. Bergen. “We’re proud to stand with Senator Lesniak in kicking off this important initiative.”
The legislation, S-2366, entitled “the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Employment and Demonstration Project was signed into law in 2013, and was sponsored by Lesniak and Senator Joseph F. Vitale of Middlesex. The bill has the state Department of Human Services partner with local agencies, non-profits, and colleges and universities to provide food stamp recipients with job training funded by private foundations with matching funds from the federal government.
“The program is unique in that it matches private sector money to Federal money—at no cost to the state–in funding jobs training programs for SNAP recipients,” said Senator Lesniak. “At a time when many of our residents are still struggling to pay for food and now facing the loss of benefits, we call upon the state Department of Human Services to expand the pilot program across the state.”
Mayor Bollwage noted: “This Job Training and Placement PILOT program for SNAP recipients will increase options for residents, enable them to acquire and hone skills as well as enhance their abilities. From assisting with retaining benefits to improving the overall quality of life, this initiative supports the wellness of our community.”
The state Department of Human Services selected two non-profits, Blessed Ministries Inc. and YouthBuild, Newark Inc., to run pilot programs that would help as many as 400 or so SNAP recipients in four counties—Union, Essex, Hudson and Passaic Counties—to find work or engage in a work-related activity or program that would help them retain benefits.
Blessed Ministries Inc.’s pilot program was funded in part through a $500,000 donation from the Nicholson Foundation of Newark, and matched through U.S. Department of Labor funds passed through the State Division of Family Development. YouthBuild, Newark Inc.’s programming is supported by the U.S. Department of Labor, multiple State agencies, the Victoria and Prudential Foundations, and other public and private sources.
“We’re excited to have been chosen to work with Union County among the counties in our service area,” said Sean LaCon, Chairman and Founder of Blessed Ministries. “We’ve developed a rapid advancement and employment program which will help SNAP recipients with the skills they need to find employment.” LaCon also thanked Lesniak and the Nicholson Foundation for their support.
“This pilot brings much-needed resources to work that is often overlooked in State and federal policy discussions for a population that is vital to communities and families thriving,” cited YouthBuild Newark’s Founding Executive Director Robert Clark. “We are eager to build upon Senator Lesniak’s vision and collaborate with partners such as the Urban League of Essex County to maximize its impact.”
Statewide, 884,937 residents—or roughly one of every ten New Jersey residents—receive SNAP benefits. In Union County, 49,578 residents, including 24,462 children—receive SNAP benefits according to a December, 2015 New Jersey Department of Human Services report. A recent study by the Food Research and Action Center, a non-profit group, indicates the number could be much higher since the State of New Jersey ranks among the 15 worst nationally in reaching SNAP-eligible people.
Union County Human Services Director Frank Guzzo explained that in order to enroll in a jobs training program such as Blessed Ministries and YouthBuild Newark, Inc., Union County SNAP clients must first be found eligible and referred through County Human Services personnel at one of the County’s One Stop Centers.
The State has sent out letters to single, able-bodied adults without dependents (known as ABAWDs) who receive SNAP benefits and who face a potential loss of benefits due to the loss of waivers, asking them to report on the following dates for an informational session and assessment:
Anyone who has questions about their benefits should call the statewide SNAP Hotline at 855-450-3109.
A significant portion of SNAP recipients are low-income, low skill residents with limited job prospects, who are more likely to lack basic skills in reading, writing, and math, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Many SNAP recipients are also homeless, according to Linda Flores-Tober, Executive Director of the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless.
“Every year, we are seeing more and more homeless people access our services,” said Flores-Tober. “Any effort that addresses food insecurity among the homeless and poor is certainly welcome, but we certainly have a long way to go in the state.”
According to a U.S. Department of Labor study released in 2015, New Jersey’s long term jobless rate remains among the highest in the nation with more than 40 percent of its unemployed residents having been jobless at least 27 weeks. Only New Mexico and Washington D.C. posted higher rates. The impact from the state’s persistently sluggish recovery is being felt at New Jersey’s food banks, which have seen the ongoing, record demand dramatically shrink their inventory.
The latest report from Feeding America, a nutritional advocacy group, shows more than 1.1 million people across the state face hunger, and almost 400,000 of them are children. That puts New Jersey’s overall food insecurity rate at more than 12%, but children fare worse, with their food insecurity rate now 18%, and nearly one in five facing hunger.
“This is an ongoing crisis that many residents in New Jersey may not be aware of,” said Debra Vizzi, President and CEO of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, which is headquartered in Hillside. “We applaud any effort to assist SNAP recipients maintain their benefits or find work, and to call attention to the hunger crisis in New Jersey.”
Pastor Carmine Pernini, of the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rahway who is representing the Union County Interfaith Coordinating Council, added: “As first responders in our congregations and communities, clergy see and know firsthand how essential SNAP is to quality of life for so many. It is our hope that the funding of SNAP remain in place in support of those most in need of help in keeping food on their table for them and their families.”
Union County College President Margaret M. McMenamin, who also joined the announcement, was recently notified by the state that at least 100 SNAP clients will be seeking the College’s services for training and placement services—in a program unrelated to Lesniak’s pilot project. The program will be funded through the State Department of Labor Workforce Development and will providing training and placement for
“These are people who need a boost: to learn a new skill or to build on the educational credentials they already have,” McMenamin said. “That’s what community colleges do. We welcome our neediest residents with open arms and give them that boost toward achieving a better life.”
The kick-off to Lesniak’s SNAP Pilot program initiative was held at the African American Cultural and Learning Center on Spring Street in Elizabeth. Scheduled speakers included Senator Lesniak, Freeholder Chairman Bergen, Mayor Bollwage, Sheriff Cryan, Sean LaCon of Blessed Ministries, YouthBuild Newark Board Member Craig Drinkard, Linda Flores-Tober of the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, Debra Vizzi of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, Union County College President Dr. Margaret McMenamin, Pastor Carmine Pernini of the Union County Interfaith Coordinating Council, Pastor Carlos J. Torres, 7th Day Adventist Church with four branches in Elizabeth, Frank Guzzo, Director of the Union County Department of Human Services, members of the Clergy and SNAP clients.