From the New Jersey Star-Ledger:

One of Heather Cooke’s favorite meals is a fresh garden salad. But finding the ingredients for the dish in her Hamilton neighborhood isn’t easy.

The nearest ShopRite is a 15-minute drive. When Cooke’s aging Ford is in the shop, as it was in June, she can take two NJ Transit buses to the supermarket and haul her bags home.

There are plenty of fast food joints and a small grocery store within walking distance. But the produce prices are “outrageously expensive,” said Cooke, 44.

Welcome to the desert.

Cooke’s neighborhood on the Hamilton-Trenton border is one of 134 “food deserts” in New Jersey, according to the federal government. They are mostly low-income pockets of big cities, sprawling suburbs and small towns that lack easy access to a supermarket but are usually brimming with expensive convenience stores and fast food restaurants.

Experts say food deserts are the equivalent of nutritional wastelands, where families who can’t afford to hunt down fresh food are often left to subside on Slurpees, Big Macs and calorie-laden packaged foods. Studies show food desert residents are more likely to be obese and spend a greater percentage of their time and income shopping for meals.

“There’s food in these communities,” said Alan Berube, a senior fellow and research director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. “It’s just expensive food, or not particularly healthy food.”

More than 340,000 New Jerseyans — or about 4 percent of the state’s population — live in food deserts and have limited access to supermarkets, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The areas, which dot the map from Sussex County to Cape May, include some obvious food wastelands, including an industrial section of Newark near the New Jersey Turnpike and a sparsely populated stretch near the Bayonne port that is far from any shopping centers.

But other Garden State food deserts are more surprising: Nearly a third of Carteret in Middlesex County. A large portion of Manville in Somerset County. A swath of Piscataway near Rutgers University. Relatively upscale sections of Parsippany in Morris County and Margate on the Jersey Shore.

South Jersey fared the worst in the federal study released this spring. Researchers found 83 food deserts in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties, accounting for more than 60 percent of the state’s total. Experts say less populated areas, like portions of South Jersey, are difficult for shoppers because they lack both large supermarkets and the mass transportation needed to get to far-away stores.

Another report issued last year by a nonprofit group says New Jersey’s food desert problem is even worse that the federal government estimates. The Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group that researches urban issues, concluded more than 924,000 Garden State residents — or more than 10 percent of the population — lack adequate access to supermarkets offering fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products.

Though they may have never heard of the term food desert, many residents in affected areas know their access to food is limited.

With no car and no affordable grocery store within walking distance of his Hamilton apartment, John Korrow relies on his two sisters to give him a ride to a supermarket in a neighboring town every few weeks.

More.

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