'Top Chef' judge Tom Colicchio, anti-hunger activists urge N.J. lawmakers to boost funding for food programs

JOHN P. MCALPIN, The Record

A reality show star joined other anti-hunger activists at the State House and urged New Jersey lawmakers to increase funding for food programs and to approve bills in votes Monday that would ease restrictions and get benefits to people faster.

“Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio, an activist who said he had gone from backing food banks to pressing for laws that would end hunger in America, had pointed words for Governor Christie. In August, Christie vetoed a bill that would have redirected federal money from one program and allowed more to be spent in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

That was a decision based more on Christie’s personal political ambitions than the needs of hungry people in New Jersey, Colicchio told the dozens of volunteers, activists, legislators and representatives from religious groups.

“He decided that politics was more important than people,” Colicchio said. “People struggle every day to put food on the table and we’re choosing to play politics.”

Several lawmakers said Monday that they would work to revive the bill and overturn Christie’s veto.

A spokesman for Christie referred to the governor’s veto message from August where he explained his decision, saying that the bill did not conform to federal regulations. “While I remain steadfast in my support for assistance programs to help aid needy individuals and families, I cannot support legislation codifying a practice deemed invalid by the federal government,” Christie said in that statement.

Leaders of faith-based groups urged the legislators at Monday’s meeting hosted by the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition to do what they can, particularly to increase money for programs.

“We’re doing all we can, we have limited resources,” said Fr. Tim Graff, director of Human Concerns for the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. “We can’t do any more. The faith community is doing all we can.”

Many spoke of wealthy communities where hunger is an every day reality, and where apparent affluence masks the growing need.

Peter Jackson, archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, said his church has 40 people attending services regularly, but so many more coming to West Orange for the weekly meals that they had to limit the number of people who can eat there.

“This cannot be something we carry on ourselves,” Jackson said. “We need help.”

Monday’s bills in the Assembly would end several restrictions that keep eligible people from getting benefits in a timely manner, said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood.

“When there is help, the process is being delayed,” she said. “Can this help? Of course it can. It can stop the delays where people are waiting, waiting.”

Both measures were approved by the Assembly on Monday.

Email: mcalpin@northjersey.com