N.J. religious leaders to elected officials: we can't feed the hungry alone

Susan Livio NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

From Pennsauken to Pleasantville to Jersey City, a handful of food pantries scattered across New Jersey are closing or are taking a break, but not because fewer people need help, the Rev. Sara Lilja said, director of the Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministries.

There's just not enough food to fill the need, Lilja said.

"These aren't big organizations -- they are serving 50 to 100 families a week. But they make a big difference," said she, adding, "Christmas isn't fun when you are hungry."

"We are stretched. We need state cooperation," said Lilja, speaking on behalf of the 180 Lutheran congregations in New Jersey.

Religious leaders representing Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Episcopalians, Baptists and Lutherans -- members of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition -- gathered at the Statehouse Monday to describe how the population of hungry citizens has grown beyond the point their charitable missions can handle. They called upon state and federal elected officials to change laws that would make the food stamps program more effective, and provide greater financial support for faith-based volunteer programs don't have to turn people away.

The Venerable Peter Jackson, Archdeacon of the 112 churches that make up the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, said his church's "emergency" food pantry his members created for West Orange 10 years ago evolved into a "sole provider" for 300 to 500 people a month. The demand grew to include East Orange and Orange residents, too, but supplies were too limited and eventually they had to limit participation just to West Orange.

"This is not something we can handle alone," Jackson said.

Famed restauranteur Tom Colicchio, a judge on TV's Top Chef and an Elizabeth native, also participated in the gathering by offering some of the harshest criticism against elected officials who have failed to respond to the needs of hungry people.

Colicchio said Gov. Chris Christie could have supported legislation that raised the amount of money families must receive in heating assistance subsidies in order to qualify for a larger portion of federally-funded food stamps, also know as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Yet the governor vetoed it, Colicchio noted.

A cook at a casino who identified himself at the gathering only as "Robert W." said his sister's SNAP benefits dropped from $181 a month to $44 a month as a result of the so-called "heat and eat" bill failing and federal cuts to SNAP.

About 160,000 New Jerseyans will see their SNAP benefits decline, by an average of $90 a month, according to the coalition.

"Governor Christie had the power to put those cuts back into every single person's pocket and decided not to do that," Colicchio said. "He decided presidential aspirations are more important than whether or not our children go to bed hungry."

"We certainly have enough food" to feed the hungry in the nation, Colicchio added. "What we lack is the political will to feed everyone."

About 10 state legislators attended the gathering and pledged their support. Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) and Sens. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) and Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) have sponsored two bills that aim to cut downthe bureaucracy inside New Jersey's SNAP program, which according to a federal analysis earlier this year, is one of the slowest states for processing applications. One bill would give people a receipt as proof they submitted an application, to address the problem of files that go missing, and one that would expedite applications of people who earn less than $150 a month.