In Search of Our Better Selves – Themes of Mad Max: Fury Road

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Mad Max: Fury Road was my favorite movie of 2015 and maybe my favorite personal experience in a movie theater of all time. It’s excellent on its own merits as an action movie, with George Miller having had spent nearly 15 years or so developing the plot, characters, and world of Fury Road, with an attention to detail especially for stunts, sets, costumes, and the sort of classic analog special effects that have been long supplanted by CGI in Hollywood movie making. The result is a very intense visual experience and a fully realized cinematic world that I think would stand on its own merits even if it were just that.

All that said, a common criticism of Fury Road is that it is seemingly threadbare in plot, little more than a giant, long car chase dressed up as a full-length movie. In reality, Fury Road is rich in symbolism and subtext, some of which is very blatant and in other cases more subtle. I think it’s worth-reviewing, so as I understand them, here are my summaries on some of the most important themes of Mad Max: Fury Road.

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Trauma and Redemption

The two largest themes of Mad Max: Fury Road are trauma and the seeking of redemption. These themes are typified specifically by the film’s two leads: Max and Furiosa. Both are characters who are reflections of each other. These characters start at polar opposite points in their respective lives, with both of them having chosen a different path to follow in order to survive their world.

When we first meet Furiosa, she is a tool of power and an enforcer of hierarchy.  She is an Imperator, a leader in the death cult society that Immortan Joe has established at the Citadel. Having obtained this role makes her a hardened and ranking member of what remains of post-apocalypse society. We are not given an extensive amount of Furiosa’s backstory or how she came to be an Imperator but from what we do know about her past, we can piece together a few important facts about who she is: Furiosa was originally born in the fertile land of the Green Place and kidnapped as a child, though we do not necessarily know by whom. We do know that at whatever point in time she came to reside at Immortan Joe’s Citadel, where she has stayed for a large part of her life.

The few women who live in the upper reaches of the Citadel exist to either bear Immortan Joe children, service him sexually, or to produce milk. Since Furiosa seems to have had no use as a mother for Joe’s children and is a warrior in his cult, there’s the implication that Furiosa is most likely sterile. Spared from being a member of Immortan Joe’s harem or one of his brides, Furiosa has become a participant in Immortan Joe’s society and hierarchy, distinguishing herself by doing his dirty work in exchange for privileges that allow her easy access to shelter, water, food, and prestige. She climbs and commands a place in the social hierarchy in order to escape the harsh life of the huddled underclass we see clamoring for water near the beginning of the movie.

Naturally, in order to maintain her position, she has most likely done terrible things. The world of the wasteland is harsh enough as it is, but in earning the title of “Imperator”, she has distinguished herself in an already brutal land. We know that, however, by the beginning of the movie Furiosa’s hardened nature has broken down once introduced to the company of Immortan Joe’s Brides. Her time guarding the Brides and observing their innocence and abuse reignites Furiosa’s guilt, own traumas, memories, and hopes for the future. In rescuing the Brides away from Immortan Joe and trying to find the Green Place, a nostalgic place free of men like Immortan Joe and their cruelty, Furiosa seeks to redeem herself for the atrocities she has committed and seen, she fights for her own absolution from a society that is unjust.

Max has responded to his experience of trauma, the loss of loved ones and the death of the world, by shedding society and other people as much as possible. Haunted by the failure of those he has failed to protect, he begins as a man reduced to a feral state, withdrawn, and solely focused on survival. He has lost a wife, a daughter, and countless others.

As is common with victims of trauma, Max disconnects and dissociates. He compartmentalizes. Getting close to no one means he can at least focus on something else besides old loss and the potential for new loss. Max falls in with Furiosa and the Brides initially with just the intent of preserving his own life, but as Max spends more time with Furiosa and the Brides and begins to join their hopes for a better future, Max’s own personal barriers break down. By finding something beyond himself to fight for, by allowing himself to have something to live for beyond his own survival, Max rediscovers (if only for a little while) his humanity and a sense of community that he has lost.

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Sacrifice and Community

Max and Furiosa’s traumas, guilt, and failures are their own. Their redemption is not. The focus Fury Road places on community and shared burdens is important and a message that can be taken to heart. Max and Furiosa do not absolve their inner demons alone. They overcome them by rejecting being individualized or atomized or focused solely on themselves and their own survival. They learn to cooperate. The struggle and emphasis of Fury Road is importantly a shared one, a communal one. This is essentially the story of a loose-knit family forged in the face of adversity and bonds between people who struggle together that make them willing to sacrifice themselves for each other.

Nux the War Boy spends the entire first half of the movie trying to win the approval of a society and a patriarch that sees him as disposable. The War Boys are actively encouraged to sacrifice their lives for the cause of Immortan Joe and personal glory. By the film’s end, Nux has indeed sacrificed his life but not for some personal Valhalla. Nux dies historic on the Fury Road and sacrifices himself not for the individual honor and glory that is encouraged by the society of the Citadel, but because he has found a group and a person (the bride, Capable) that mean more to him than the Citadel and its promises of immortality ever did. His death has only one witness and it is fittingly the only witness he could ever care about.

After sharing mutual distrust after first meeting, Max and Furiosa eventually come to build a respect and trust with each other. They risk their lives for each other and symbolically at the end of the film, Max literally bonds himself by blood to Furiosa, saving her life. In the emotional climax of the movie, after having given her his blood, Max movingly offers Furiosa the most intimate thing he has: his name. Their significance to each other is now permanent. The taking of the Citadel seems to be Furiosa’s glory but meeting Max is the most significant occurrence in her life thus far, changing everything. His presence allows her to build and succeed on his haunting failures.

Case in point: Fury Road is not a movie about individual heroics, it is a story about collective triumph.

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Gender and Hierarchy

Who killed the world? The question proposed by the graffiti scrawled in Immortan Joe’s lair seems to having a pretty damning answer: men. Or at least their societies. The nuclear war and the battles over resources have torn up the world and left a waste. The civilization that has emerged from the ruins is horribly oppressive and aggressively macho. The women in the society of the Citadel are generally stripped of their agency to serve its patriarch or they are among the huddled, thirsty masses below.  The men are drafted into a personal army that encourages treating your life with recklessness for the glory of a distant and uncaring father figure.

Fury Road lays blame for the death of the world at the feet of a macho, resource guzzling, war-mongering society.

Though feminist in bent, this is not a utopian or moralistic film. It is notable that the paradise that Furiosa sets out to find, a green utopia free of men, has literally wasted away by the time she arrives. The comments by the older women who stayed behind suggest that Furiosa’s dream was probably untenable or temporary in the first place before falling apart. Her escape attempt is pinned on vague hopes and nostalgia. Without Max’s knowledge, Furiosa most likely would have led her party to their deaths in the salt desert after discovering the dream she hoped to find was dead.

The solution that Fury Road does suggest is inclusive. Nux and Max prove themselves to be men that Furiosa and the other women can trust. Nux is by his nature, naive and young and preyed upon in his own way by the macho society that has raised him. Once he has shed his pretenses of glory, he is accepted into the fold.  Max earns their trust as he slowly humanizes himself. Furiosa’s crusade and society eventually becomes open to those who are willing to become participants. The societies of men may have killed the world, but the men themselves are not irredeemable.

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Hope and Empowerment

When Max stops Furiosa and the convoy from journeying off into the desert and suggests they take back the Citadel, it’s an important subtext. It is at this point that Furiosa must come to terms with the fact that there is no Green Place that she can run to. Max lays bare the fact that the world she is looking for has been under her nose all along. It’s just that it must be taken and built.

The message of Fury Road is empowerment. The resources and infrastructure to build the world you want are already there. The people who can help you confront your problems are closer than you think. And a better future may just be one or two rebellious acts away.

All of this applies as much to our own world as much as the apocalyptic one depicted in the film. As the epigraph of Fury Road questions: “Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?” The world we inhabit now is its own metaphorical wasteland, filled with injustices. The hope is that we confront it.

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Ewing Man Accidentally Crosses Border Into Trenton, Lives To Tell About It

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Chaos and heartbreak erupted in a McDonald’s parking lot this morning as local Ewing resident, Dan Smith, was horrified to discover that he had crossed the border into Trenton city limits by accident. During a routine morning trip to a McDonald’s located on Olden Avenue, Smith was shocked to have his smartphone inform him that his parking spot actually placed him within the technical border of Trenton. Thirty minutes later, police were able to successfully rescue the incredibly shaken and distraught, but alive, Smith away from his car and his harrowing ordeal with deadly inner-city life. “Well, technically, only the back part of the McDonald’s parking lot is in Trenton, so we were able to move him up to the drive-in window and into safety”, Lt. Ryan Moore told reporters. At press time, in between mournful bites of a McMuffin, sheltered local man Smith went on to describe his experience away from the safety of suburban life as “unnerving but eye-opening”.

Food Deserts in Trenton

SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM

  • The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as “as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.”1 In 2009, it was estimated that 5 million people live in low-income areas that are more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store,2 limiting the access residents have to healthy food spatially, which is compounded by the fact that low-income residents’ poverty made means to obtain regular transportation to supermarkets and grocery stores more difficult.
    • It is important to note that not all of the previously mentioned 23.5 million people have low income. If estimates are restricted to consider only low income people in low-income areas, then 11.5 million people, or 4.1 percent of the total U.S. population, live in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket. 2
  • The Food Trust, a nonprofit organization started in Philadelphia, found that obesity rates in New Jersey are over 35 percent higher for those earning less than $15,000 a year when compared to those earning $50,000 or above.3
  • The Food Trust also found that New Jersey as a whole has 25 percent fewer supermarkets per capita than the national average, with poverty-stricken cities like Trenton and Camden suffering the most from this state-wide deficit.3
  • The placement and usage of supermarkets correlates with better health outcomes. The lowest rates for being overweight or obese in the U.S. are found where people have easy access to supermarkets and grocery stores
    • Those who live farther away from grocery stores than from convenience stores or limited service restaurants have significantly higher rates of premature death from diabetes. Researchers in Indianapolis even estimate that the addition of one new grocery store to a high poverty neighborhood would result in a three-pound weight decrease among residents.7
    • Data on time use and travel mode show that people living in low-income areas with limited access spend significantly more time (19.5 minutes) traveling to a grocery store than the national average (15 minutes).2 In small-town and rural areas with limited food access, the lack of transportation infrastructure is the most defining characteristic.2
      • Urban centers with limited food access are also characterized by higher levels of racial segregation and greater levels of income inequality.
      • Surveys about food access show that nearly 6 percent of all U.S. households did not always have the food they wanted or needed because of access related problems, with more than half of these households also lacked enough money for food.2
    • Low-income neighborhoods have half as many supermarkets as the wealthiest neighborhoods and four times as many smaller grocery stores, according to an assessment of 685 urban and rural census tracts in three states.7
      • It is also important to note that full-sized supermarkets and grocery stores have lower priced food than smaller stores, such as convenience stores. A key concern for people who live in areas with limited access is that they rely on small grocery or convenience stores that may not carry all the foods needed for a healthy diet and that may offer these foods and other food at higher prices.2
      • Despite being one of the most affluent states in the country, New Jersey has over 25 percent fewer per capita supermarkets compared to national averages. A nationwide study of over 28,000 ZIP codes found that lower-income ZIP codes have 25 percent fewer per capita supermarkets than middle-income ZIP codes.8
    • Lower-income New Jersey residents are likely to suffer from obesity and diet-related health problems at rates significantly higher than those of the population as a whole. Diabetes rates among New Jersey’s lowest income residents are over four times higher than those with income above $75,000.8
    • The city of Trenton itself has been identified as a food desert and designated as having issues and symptoms similar to those of other urban centers considered food deserts with food insecurity affecting about one in five Trenton households.
  • Nearly half of the city’s children, including those as young as three to five years old, are considered to be obese due to lack of access to healthy food.3
  • A total of 17 percent of Trenton households report regularly lacking enough food to eat.3
  • There are only three true supermarkets within the city limits, with an incredibly high number of what food access exists being restricted to limited food service restaurants (51 percent of outlets) and bodegas (29 percent), Trenton would have to triple its number of supermarkets to adequately serve its residents.3
    • Compared to supermarkets, bodegas are cheaper and more accessible, but much smaller, tending to carry unhealthy, energy-dense and overly sweetened items including soda, candy, cooked fast food, cigarettes, alcohol, tobacco, packaged food and beverages of minimal nutritional value.
    • Overall, most Trenton area supermarkets are inaccessible without a car, representing a major disparity. Many residents do not own cars and, while public transportation in the city is unreliable, it is also costly.
    • This lack of food access has important and dire effects: compared to Mercer County and New Jersey, Trenton residents have more problems with their weight, with 39 percent of residents being obesecompared to 19.7 percent in Mercer County and 23.7 percent in New Jersey as a whole 3
  • One in two Trenton children is overweight and obese in every age category, with the largest difference between Trenton public school children and the average child occurring among the youngest children, with 49 percent of three to five year olds in Trenton being overweight or obese compared to 21 percent in the U.S.

POLICY & FUNDING

National

  • Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI): Sponsored by U.S. Representative Allyson Y. Schwartz, HFFI is a market-based approach to bring jobs and investment to underserved communities where healthy food options are scarce or unaffordable.
    • Schwartz’s bill would authorize $125 million to continue HFFI and help make more grocery stores, farmers’ markets, food cooperatives and other options accessible by providing one time start-up grants and affordable loan financing.13
  • Food Desert Oasis Act (HR 3100): Introduced by U.S. Representative Bobby Rush, the act would designate certain cities as food desert zones. It also would define certain business as food desert businesses and would provide tax benefits to those that derive at least 25 percent of their gross sales from the sale of fresh fruits and vegetables.13

–  Employers would receive a tax credit of $1,500 for every employee hired from within a Food Desert Zone, and tax-exempt bonds would be used on a variety of store upgrades, from the actual purchase of a building to equipment, or even product purchases.13

State

  • New Jersey Fresh Food Access Act (NJ SB 3089): Sponsored by State Senator Donald Norcross, the Fresh Food Access Act would provide loan and grant moneys from certain sales tax revenue to assist businesses in providing fresh and healthy foods in areas of the State where there is a demonstrated lack of availability of such foods.10
  • Fresh Mobiles Pilot Program (AB 3688/SB 2728): This law established a mobile farmers’ market pilot program to increase access to fresh food for residents in the Garden State’s food deserts. The pilot targeted Camden, which had been identified by the USDA as one of the worst food deserts in the nation. The program utilizes local vendors and food producers and a small fleet of vans and refrigerated trailers to set up markets in the heart of food deserts.11

Programs

  • New Jersey Food Access Initiative (NJFAI): program designed to increase the supply of affordable, fresh food in underserved areas across the state, while improving the diets and health outcomes of the state’s residents and spurring economic development in low- and moderate-income communities. The NJFAI provides financing to supermarket operators and developers of supermarkets statewide with an emphasis on serving ten priority cities which include Atlantic City, Camden, East Orange, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Newark, New Brunswick, Paterson, Trenton and Vineland.
    • NJFAI provides early-stage financing with low and no cost loans, typically repaid by construction financing. Loans range in size from $200,000 to $4,500,000, while limited grants, which range in size from $5,000 to $125,000, are also available to eligible loan applicants.9
    • An eligible applicant project must be located in a low- to moderate-income census tract in New Jersey or located in or projected to serve an underserved community. Projects must all demonstrably provide a full selection of healthy, unprepared and unprocessed foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, to area residents.9
    • Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program (DVCP): Wholesome Wave a nonprofit founded in 2007 that is dedicated improving the accessibility and affordability of fresh, healthy, locally-grown food to historically underserved communities, launched its Double Value Coupon Program (DVCP) in 2008 in order to specifically target communities with poor food access.
    • When shopping at participating farmers markets and other farm-to-retail venues, DVCP participants receive a coupon incentive that matches the amount they spend in federal nutrition benefits (such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC) towards the purchase of healthful, locally grown food.6
    • Since the program’s first implementation in 2008, DVCP has seen sizable growth in the number of participating markets and sales. Federal nutrition benefits and DVCP sales made at participating markets grew from $331,000 in 2009 to over $2.3 million in 2012.iv DVCP has experienced tremendous growth, expanding from 40 farmers markets in 2009 to 306 farm-to-retail markets in 2012.4

Endnotes

1United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service: Food Deserts

http://apps.ams.usda.gov/fooddeserts/foodDeserts.aspx

2United States Department of Agriculture, Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences, U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Serive, June 2009

http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/242654/ap036_reportsummary_1_.pdf
3 Trenton Health Team, Community Health Needs Assessment Report Trenton, New Jersey, July 2013 http://www.capitalhealth.org/~/media/B67A9807E88E472287BCADB9CB7BCD67.ashx

4Wholesome Wave, Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program: Increasing Food Access and Local Farm Business Nationwide, 2012

https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B9xO2Xo4OIC4UU12c2JQV0VhdnM/edit

5Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Double Value Coupon Program Diet and Shopping Behavior Study, September 2012

http://www.oecd.org/site/agrfcn/Double-Value-Coupon-Program-Diet-Shopping-Behavior-Study-.pdf

6Wholesome Wave, Double Value Coupon Program (DVCP)
http://wholesomewave.org/dvcp/

7Treuhaft, Sarah and Karpyn, Allison. The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access to Healthy Food and Why It Matters, Policy Link, 2010.

http://www.policylink.org/atf/cf/%7B97C6D565-BB43-406D-A6D5-ECA3BBF35AF0%7D/FINALGroceryGap.pdf

8Lang, Brian and Manon, Miriam. Food for Every Child: The Need for More Supermarkets in New Jersey, The Food Trust, 2009.

http://www.tulloch.rutgers.edu/Maps/NJSupermarkets_PhillyFoodTrust.pdf

9New Jersey Food Access Initiative, Initiative Brochure, July 2012.

http://www.trfund.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/NJ_HealthyFoodRetailInitiativeBrochure_2013.pdf

10Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, New Jersey Legislative Database.

http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/legislation/bill.aspx?i=18&s=33

11National Black Caucus of State Legislators, Black State Legislators Providing an Oasis from Food Deserts One Law at a Time, 2013.

http://nbcsl.org/public-policy/model-legislation/model-legislation-archives/item/1128-black-state-legislators-providing-an-oasis-from-food-deserts-one-law-at-a-time.html

12Supermarket News, House Bill Would Address Food Deserts, June 2013.

http://supermarketnews.com/laws-amp-regulations/house-bill-would-address-food-deserts

13Cortex, Angela. Food desert bill would entice new grocery stores with tax incentives, Natural Foods Merchandiser. September, 2009.

http://newhope360.com/managing-your-business/food-desert-bill-would-entice-new-grocery-stores-tax-incentives

 

 

The Real Cost of Living in New Jersey

SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM

A report released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013 revealed that 1.35 million New Jersey residents, around 15% of the total population, are living in poverty.1 Exacerbating this problem is the fact that New Jersey residents who are employed full-time increasingly can’t keep up with dramatically rising living costs; over one million residents fall below the poverty line despite having full-time jobs.2 In a time of both increasing poverty and rising costs, residents are also facing a shrinking safety net and a declining level of benefits from both the federal and the state government.

  • Increases in Social Security benefits for retirees have diminished to their lowest recorded level and have not kept pace with increases in inflation.4
  • New Jersey residents eligible for food stamps benefits (SNAP) have also
    faced a rollback of benefits, and individuals in poverty have found it harder to provide regular, healthy meals for both themselves and their families.6
  • Deep cuts were made by the New Jersey State Legislature in 2011 into the benefits of 750,000 government workers and retirees.5 With all these factors taken into account, it is clear that New Jersey and the nation are facing unprecedented increases in the cost of living and the poverty rate.

Complicating all of these factors is the way poverty and the cost of living national and in New Jersey is measured. Household poverty in the United States is measured officially by the federal poverty level (FPL).3 Those households and families living below the poverty line are determined to be officially “living in poverty.” Those families living below the FPL are assumed to have their well-being at risk due to poverty. The same metric is used to determine which households qualify for public assistance programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. The FPL, however, is an outdated, simplistic, and flawed measure of poverty and the influence of other economic factors, such as inflation.

  • The FPL was formulated in the 1960s and the formula has not been meaningfully changed since that time.2
    • The FPL also does not calculate for geographic differences in the cost of living. There are marked differences in the cost of living not only between states but also between cities and counties within states as well.
    • Additionally, the FPL does not account for changes in household structure that have occurred since the 1960s. For example, in recent decades the percentage of households with more than one working adult has increased.
  • In response to these deficiencies, the Dr. Diana Pearce of the University of Washington has developed the Real Cost of Living (RCL) poverty metric.2
    • The RCL calculates the minimum amount of income necessary to meet basic household necessities without experiencing significant deprivation.
      • Significant deprivation describes the extent to which a family or household must sacrifice one necessity in order to be able to afford another, such as forgoing buying food in order to be able to afford rent or transportation.
    • The RCL is focuses on seven specific areas of basic family needs and costs: housing, healthcare, food, child care, transportation, inevitable taxes, and other essentials, such as clothing.
    • Overall, the RCL takes into account 70 different family types, the effect of taxes and tax credits, and the cost of traveling to and from work. It is designed to give a more comprehensive analysis of wealth, the cost of living, and the poverty level than the FPL allows.
    • Starting in 1999, the non-profit organization Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ) sponsored and conducted Real Cost of Living studies in New Jersey in collaboration with Dr. Diana Pearce in order to obtain a deeper understanding of the cost of living and poverty level in New Jersey.
      • This is especially important in light of the fact that New Jersey’s position as one of highest cost of living states in the country. New Jersey’s high cost of living disproportionately effects those in the middle and lower income brackets, with continuing increases in the cost of living placing a burden on those already with less resources than most.2 The LSNJ’s most recent report was published in May of 2013.
    • The most recent Real Cost of Living report released by the Legal Services of New Jersey made several discoveries related to income, wealth, and poverty in New Jersey. The report outlined some several key findings:
      • A typical four person family requires an income of $64,000 to $75,000 in order to meet basic needs, a single adult an income of at least $28,593, and a single adult with one to two children an income of at least $56,865.2
        • Housing and childcare are currently the largest cost factors in the average family and household budget, with housing taking up 46% of the budget of an average single adult and 24% for two adultswith two children.2
      • Between 1999 and 2011, the RCL has risen an estimated 18.5% to 28.9% for all family compositions, with the RCL rising the most for families with two or more children.2 At the same time, median wages and household income have actually decreased at least 4.4% during the same 12 year period.2
        • The report also reveals that increasingly a large number of households and families have incomes that are below the RCL, with the highest percentage group below the RCL being the 74% of households with one adult and two or more children.2 The lowest percentage group below the RCL are the 20% of households with two adults and two-children.2
      • One-quarter of all New Jersey workers earn wages below the statewide RCL average of $13.75 an hour, for a single adult.2 In five of the 15 employment sectors with a minimum of 100,000 workers, at least half of all workers earned less than the statewide RCL average of $13.75 an hour.2
        • The increase in the RCL in New Jersey over the past decade has led to a higher level of economic residential concentration, so that counties with higher costs of force lower income individuals and families out, result in lower poverty rates.
      • Bergen, Hunterdon, and Somerset counties were among those both with the lowest poverty levels in the state while having among the highest RCL in 2011.2
      • Similarly, Atlantic, Salem, and Hudson counties each had among the highest poverty levels within the state while also having the lowest RCL in 2011.2
      • Additionally, households and families with disabled members also experienced a higher cost of living level depending on the severity of the disability. Households with low severity disabilities and households with high severity disabilities experiencing 14 percent and 136 percent higher costs of living than average, respectively.2

POLICY & FUNDING

National

  • There has been a number of bills advanced at the federal level in the past few years dedicated to combatting the increasing real cost of living nationwide.
    • Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2012: In 2012, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives introduced and passed companion bills that raised the federal minimum wage to $8.25. The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2012 raised the federal minimum wage from the current rate of $7.25 to $8.25 per hour by 2014, and it provides for annual increases to the rate in future years to keep pace with the rising cost of living – a key reform known as “indexing” – which ten states have already adopted. 7
      • A study released by the Economy Policy Institute attests that increasing the federal minimum wage to $9.80 by July 1, 2014, would raise the wages of about 28 million workers (up to 18% of the total national labor force)8, who would receive nearly $40 billion in additional wages over the phase-in period.8 Across the phase-in stages, GDP would increase by roughly $25 billion, resulting in the creation of approximately 100,000 net new jobs over that period.8
    • Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC): the EITC is a tax credit for low-income working families. The credit equals a fixed percentage of earnings from the first dollar of earnings until the credit reaches its maximum; both the percentage and the maximum credit depend on the number of children in the family.9 The credit then stays flat at that maximum as earnings continue to rise, but eventually earnings reach a phase-out range.9
  • For 2013, the phase-outs begin at about $17,550 for single filers and about $22,900 for married filers, and the average size of the credit is expected to be $2,828 for a family with children and $280 for a family without children.
  • EITC expansions between 1984 and 1996 accounted for more than half of the large increase in employment among single mothers during that period, researchers found, with the most significant gains in employment attributable to the EITC occurred among mothers with young children and mothers with low education.
    • Child Tax Credit (CTC): the CTC is designed in mind to help low-income working families by attempting to offset the cost of child-rearing. The CTC, which provides taxpayers up to $1,000 for each of their dependent children under age 17, is designed to help families offset the costs of raising children and is partially refundable: a family whose credit exceeds its federal income tax liability can receive a refund for the rest of the credit, however, the refund cannot exceed 15 percent of the amount by which the family’s earnings exceed a minimum earnings threshold, which is now $3,000.15

State

  • There have been a number of authoritative recommendations written and legislation passed at the state level in New Jersey related to combating rising livings costs and poverty statewide:
    • New Jersey Minimum Wage Amendment: In November 2013, New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question that raised the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 an hour in January and amends the state Constitution to tie future increases to inflation.10
  • A study released by New Jersey Policy Perspective found that increasing New Jersey’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour would give nearly half a million working residents a crucial leg up in high-cost New Jersey while pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the state’s economy. 11
    • NJ Economic Opportunity Act of 2014 Part 1 (S928): sponsored by New Jersey State Senator Raymond J. Lesniak, the NJ Economic Opportunity bill would allocate $250 million in tax credits to rehabilitate affordable housing projects, including a $50 million set-aside for smaller developments of 25-100 units.14
    • Expanding Land Banking Opportunities (A.441/S.438): proposed legislation would allow New Jersey municipalities to designate redevelopment entities (redevelopment authorities, housing authorities, or county improvement authorities) and non-profits to act as a land bank on behalf of the municipality. The legislation is sponsored by Assembly members Mila M. Jasey, Gilbert Wilson, Timothy Eustace, and State Senator Teresa Ruiz. 14
  • Land banks allow communities to acquire and maintain vacant and abandoned properties so they can be redeveloped or reused for long-term community benefit. 14

PROGRAMS

  • Feeding America: Feeding America is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity, with network members supplying food to more than 25 million Americans each year. The network of more than 200 food banks serves all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The Feeding America network secures and distributes more than 2 billion pounds of donated food and grocery products annually.12
    • Feeding America has set a goal to source 4.3 billion meals annually by 2018.12
  • Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey (APN): Founded in December 1999, the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey (APN) seeks to prevent, reduce, and eliminate poverty in the state. Through systematic and strategic sharing of information the APN promotes dialogue, cooperation, and collaboration among people and organizations working to address poverty. APN focuses specifically on hunger, housing, and economic empowerment.13
  • Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey (HCDNNJ): The Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey is a statewide association of more than 250 affordable housing and community development corporations, individuals and other organizations that support the creation of housing and economic opportunities for low-to-moderate income New Jersey residents. The Network combines outstanding education and capacity-building programs with targeted public policy advocacy to make sure CDCs have both the technical and financial support necessary to rejuvenate neighborhoods and help residents improve their lives.16
  • New Brunswick Community Food Alliance (NBCFA): The NBCFA is a nonprofit organization located in the city of New Brunswick committed to the development and maintenance of a sustainable local food system. The NBFCA works to place food security and food systems on the city administration’s agenda to influence the local, regional and national dialog on food policy.17

Endnotes

1 Napoliello, Alex. “Report: 1.35 million N.J. residents living in poverty.” November 2013. NJ.com, http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2013/11/report_135_million_nj_residents_living_in_poverty.html

2 Johnson, Brent. “A quarter of N.J. workers fall short of rising living costs, study shows.” May 2013. The Star-Ledger, http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/05/tougher_times_nj_workers_strug.html.

3 Lichtenstein et al, May 2013. “The Real Cost of Living in New Jersey,” Legal Services of New Jersey,
http://www.lsnj.org/PDFs/RCL2013.pdf.

4 “Social Security cost-of-living hike likely to be barely 2 percent.” October 2012. Associated Press, http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2012/10/social_security_hike_likely_to.html.

5 Pérez-Peña, Richard. “New Jersey Lawmakers Approve Benefits Rollback for Work Force.” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/24/nyregion/nj-legislature-moves-to-cut-benefits-for-public-workers.html?pagewanted=all.

6 Grant, Jason. “Food stamp reductions: N.J. recipients finding it harder to feed families.” November, 2013. The Star-Ledger, http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2013/11/nj_families_finding_it_much_harder_to_put_food_on_table.html

7 “Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2012.” June, 2012. House of Representatives Ledger, http://democrats.edworkforce.house.gov/sites/democrats.edworkforce.house.gov/files/documents/112/pdf/FairMinimumWageActof2012.pdf.

8 Hall, Doug & Cooper, David.“How raising the federal minimum wage would help working families and give the economy a boost”, Crossroad Programs,

http://www.epi.org/publication/ib341-raising-federal-minimum-wage/

9 “Taxation and the Family: What is the Earned Income Tax Credit?”, Tax Policy Center,

http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/briefing-book/key-elements/family/eitc.cfm

 10 Livio, Susan. “N.J. voters approve constitutional amendment raising minimum wage”, The Star-Ledger,

http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/11/nj_voters_approve_constitutional_amendment_raising_minimum_wage.html

11 Whiten, Jon. “The Stimulus New Jersey Needs: Raising the Minimum Wage Would Boost the Economy While Providing Better Opportunities for Hundreds of Thousands of Working New Jerseyans” May, 2013. New Jersey Policy Perspective,

http://www.njpp.org/assets/reports/work-wages/njppminimumwagereportmay2013.pdf

12“Feeding America Mission and Program”, Feeding America,
http://feedingamerica.org/how-we-fight-hunger/about-us/~/media/Files/fa-one-pager-2014.ashx?.pdf

13 “About Us”, Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey,
http://www.antipovertynetwork.org/Default.aspx?pageId=1622768

14 “2014 State Legislative Policy Priorities”, Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey,
http://www.antipovertynetwork.org/Default.aspx?pageId=1622768

15 Sherman, Arloc, et al. “Various Supports for Low-Income Families Reduce Poverty and Have Long-Term Positive Effects On Families and Children”, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,
http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=3997

16 “Technical Assistance & Training”, Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey,
http://hcdnnj.memberclicks.net/ta-a-training

17 “Mission, Vision, and Goals”, New Brunswick Community Food Alliance,

http://www.nbfood.org/about/mission/

Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program

SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM

  • The United States Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as “as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.”1 In 2009, it was estimated that 5 million people live in low-income areas that are more than 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store,2 limiting the access residents have to healthy food spatially, which is compounded by the fact that low-income residents’ poverty made means to obtain regular transportation to supermarkets and grocery stores more difficult.
    • It is important to note that not all of the previously mentioned 23.5 million people have low income. If estimates are restricted to consider only low income people in low-income areas, then 11.5 million people, or 4.1 percent of the total U.S. population, live in low-income areas more than 1 mile from a supermarket.2
    • Data on time use and travel mode show that people living in low-income areas with limited access spend significantly more time (19.5 minutes) traveling to a grocery store than the national average (15 minutes).2 In small-town and rural areas with limited food access, the lack of transportation infrastructure is the most defining characteristic.2
      • Urban centers with limited food access are also characterized by higher levels of racial segregation and greater levels of income inequality.
      • Surveys about food access show that nearly 6 percent of all U.S. households did not always have the food they wanted or needed because of access related problems, with more than half of these households also lacked enough money for food.2
      • It is also important to note that full-sized supermarkets and grocery stores have lower priced food than smaller stores, such as convenience stores. A key concern for people who live in areas with limited access is that they rely on small grocery or convenience stores that may not carry all the foods needed for a healthy diet and that may offer these foods and other food at higher prices.2
    • The city of Trenton itself has been identified as a food desert and designated as having issues and symptoms similar to those of other urban centers considered food deserts with food insecurity affecting about one in five Trenton households.
  • Nearly half of the city’s children, including those as young as three to five years old, are considered to be obese due to lack of access to healthy food.3
  • A total of 17 percent of Trenton households report regularly lacking enough food to eat.3
  • There are only three true supermarkets within the city limits, with an incredibly high number of what food access exists being restricted to limited food service restaurants (51 percent of outlets) and bodegas (29 percent), Trenton would have to triple its number of supermarkets to adequately serve its residents.3

PROGRAM DESCRIPTION

  • Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit founded in 2007 that is dedicated improving the accessibility and affordability of fresh, healthy, locally-grown food to historically underserved communities, launched its Double Value Coupon Program (DVCP) in 2008 in order to specifically target communities with poor food access.4
    • DVCP has three aims as a program: expand the customer base for small-midsize farms, incentivize vulnerable families living in urban and rural communities to use federal nutrition benefits to buy healthy, fresh, locally-grown food, and generate economic stimulus.
      • When shopping at participating farmers markets and other farm-to-retail venues, DVCP participants receive a coupon incentive that matches the amount they spend in federal nutrition benefits (such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC) towards the purchase of healthful, locally grown food.5
      • As of Feburary 2012, there were currently 46.3 million Americans were enrolled in SNAP – an increase of 4.8% from the previous year.6In 2010, 55% of SNAP recipients were children under the age of 18 or seniors over the age of 60.6 41% of SNAP households received income from a job.viDVCP generates true economic stimulus by keeping federal nutrition benefit funds within local and regional communities.
    • Implementing an incentive program, such as DVCP, at farm-to-retail venues has the potential to increase the consumption of healthy produce by participating community members and support the viability of small and midsize farms by creating new revenue streams.
    • S. consumers and residents who are using federal nutrition benefits are increasingly turning to and shopping at farmers markets, with Wholesome Wave seeing DVCP as playing a part in this trend. In 2012, $16.6 million in purchases were made by SNAP recipients at markets, up from $1 million in 2007.4

IMPLEMENTATION

  • Since the program’s first implementation in 2008, DVCP has seen sizable growth in the number of participating markets and sales. Federal nutrition benefits and DVCP sales made at participating markets grew from $331,000 in 2009 to over $2.3 million in 2012.4 DVCP has experienced tremendous growth, expanding from 40 farmers markets in 2009 to 306 farm-to-retail markets in 2012.4
    • More than 3,200 farmers were able to benefit from Wholesome Wave programming in 2012, and over 1,000 other vendors at participating markets may experience increased sales due to their expanding customer base.4
      • Almost a third (30%) of DVCP consumers said they planned to spend an average of $28.95 at nearby businesses on market day, resulting in over $1 million spent by DVCP consumers at nearby local businesses in 2012.4
      • Both farmers participating in DVCP and other farmer’s market vendors reported increased sales (66% and 41% respectively) due to DVCP at their markets, while they also reported increased foot traffic from customers using federal nutrition benefits.
    • An extensive study done on DVCP users found that almost half of enrolled study participants (48 percent) came regularly to the markets and of those who participated throughout the entire study, over 60 percent purchased fruits and vegetables at the participating farmers market almost every week.5
      • Mid-season surveys of DVCP consumers reveal while many (22%) were coming to the market for the first time or they rarely came to the market (6%), the majority reported coming to the market one or 2 times per month (28%) or 3 or more times per month (44%) during the market season.
    • Further study shows a significant change in shopping behavior among participants, most markedly from a shift in buying fresh fruits and vegetables at supermarkets to buying them at farmers markets during the DVCP period.5 In addition, over two-thirds of all participants were buying all or most of their fresh fruits and vegetables at the farmer’s market midway through the DVCP study period.5
      • The DVCP not only led to increased fruit and vegetable consumption during the 16-week season, but vegetable consumption remained higher 2 months after the DVCP had ended.4

FUNDING

  • In addition to pairing with federally funded programs such as SNAP, Wholesome Wave funds its programs through fundraising and donations from its partner network.
    • In 2012, the Wholesome Wave partner network leveraged funding to raise an estimated additional $4M from private and public sources to support their incentive programs.6
    • Wholesome Wave additionally receives federally funded grants, recently receiving a $2 million dollar grant from the United States Department of Agriculture.6

Endnotes

1 United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service: Food Deserts

http://apps.ams.usda.gov/fooddeserts/foodDeserts.aspx

2 United States Department of Agriculture, Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences, U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Serive, June 2009

http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/242654/ap036_reportsummary_1_.pdf

3 Trenton Health Team, Community Health Needs Assessment Report Trenton, New Jersey, July 2013 http://www.capitalhealth.org/~/media/B67A9807E88E472287BCADB9CB7BCD67.ashx

4 Wholesome Wave, Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program: Increasing Food Access and Local Farm Business Nationwide, 2012

https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B9xO2Xo4OIC4UU12c2JQV0VhdnM/edit

5 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Double Value Coupon Program Diet and Shopping Behavior Study, September 2012

http://www.oecd.org/site/agrfcn/Double-Value-Coupon-Program-Diet-Shopping-Behavior-Study-.pdf

6 Wholesome Wave, Double Value Coupon Program (DVCP)
http://wholesomewave.org/dvcp/