GALLOWAY — Food insecurity affects at least 1 in 5 children in New Jersey, not to mention countless families and communities at large. One woman is leading an effort out of Stockton University to find common ground among the many local organizations that serve these people around the state.

Jeanine Cava launched the NJ Food Democracy Collaborative last June, as COVID-19 was making clear the dire need for better food equity in the Garden State — which, despite its name, does not always make its freshest food easily accessible, Cava said.

"Even if a market is right in a neighborhood that doesn't have a lot of fresh food access, can all those folks — do those folks feel welcome there?" she said.

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Some local markets do not accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Women Infants and Children (WIC) benefits, and the collaborative helps identify where those designations can be used.

Stockton University, where Cava is an adjunct professor, is its de facto home, but Cava said the goal is to blanket the entire state.

"We are sort of an umbrella organization," she said. "Our mission is to create spaces for folks who don't traditionally work together, but whose issue areas absolutely intersect."

There's no signup; "anyone doing this work is considered part of the network," as seen on the initiative's page on the Stockton website.

As a single mom, an academic, and a farmer (she runs Soil to Soul Farm in Tuckerton), Cava has a unique perspective on those most commonly in need of food assistance, and said who those people are is not always obvious.

So, she said having a group that "connects the dots" and diagnoses what's not working about the food system, and why, is crucial.

"A food-insecure senior in an urban area, or a farmer, or whoever that is, how can our programs that we currently have, whether they're county programs, state programs, whatever, how can they be optimized?" Cava said.

The popular perception over the years has been that the cheapest, most available foods tend to be the unhealthiest, and that even if fresh produce is available, it's often cost-prohibitive.

Cava said that's not always so. The most deeply-rooted problem remains access alone.

"Most people, when they do have access to fresh, healthy food, they do partake in it, and with other supports like SNAP education that teach them how to cook with fresh, whole foods," Cava said.

For more information on the collaborative, click here.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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