Camden is a city of almost 80,000 residents, not including the undocumented immigrant population that almost certainly numbers in the thousands. For these tens of thousands of people, living in one of the most violent, depressed cities in the United States is a daily struggle. However, the primary challenge isn't the violence or the drugs; it is food. No place in New Jersey has less supermarket food options per person than Camden.
For people in the suburbs, getting more groceries is as simple as a short five-minute drive to one of the many supermarket options. For people in Camden, there is exactly one place that could be considered a supermarket: Cousin's Supermarket. But, even that is very small compared to options in the suburbs, and is inaccessibly far for many residents. The reality is, most residents in Camden rely on one of the over 25 corner stores for their primary source of groceries for their families. This is a serious problem because under new SNAP (the federal program for Food Stamp assistance) guidelines, in order to accept food stamps, stores need:
"A) Offer for sale, on a continuous basis, at least three varieties of qualifying foods in each of the following four staple food groups, with perishable foods in at least two of the categories:
-meat, poultry or fish
-bread or cereal
-vegetables or fruits
(B) More than one-half (50%) of the total dollar amount of all retail sales (food, nonfood, gas and services) sold in the store must be from the sale of eligible staple foods."
What this means for Camden residents is that many of the places that they had previously relied on will not be able to accept their food stamp dollars, at least until they get up to code on those requirements. Think about what that means: for many, there are no supermarkets they can reasonably get to in the city AND the corner store they used to rely on can no longer reliably accept their food stamp money. What is a single mother with three kids and two jobs to do?
This is a real challenge that real residents are struggling with every single day.
The next challenge around food is what happens when the food stamp money from SNAP runs out before the end of the month. There are amazing people in the city that set up free meal or free grocery events during the third week most months, but these are Band-Aid solutions to a problem that requires something much more significant. An affordable, large supermarket in the city would go a long way towards helping this problem.
Incredibly, ShopRite, one of the biggest grocers in South Jersey announced that they would be building a new, full-sized supermarket in Camden! Land was set aside by the city, signs were put up, and press conferences were called. Mayor Dana Redd and her political boss then State Senator Donald Norcross took credit for forging a solution that would end the food desert. Everyone applauded. And then everyone forgot about Camden. The media stopped following up. And, as is often the case for Camden residents, they were left behind.
All of that happened in 2013. It is now 2016. The ShopRite site is grown over with weeds, covered in broken glass, and a frequent hang out for the homeless in the city. There are no current plans for ground to be broken, and residents rightfully have no confidence that the project will ever happen. Despite the fact that over $1.1 billion has been poured into Camden to "help residents" none of it has gone towards addressing this food crisis. None. (this is what it went towards)
Looking at the ShopRite project with a critical eye, it doesn't even seem like if it were built that it would have helped Camden residents at all. It is on an arterial highway, Admiral Wilson Blvd, which commuters from the suburbs take to get to the Ben Franklin Bridge connecting New Jersey and Philadelphia. It is not very accessible for pedestrians or bikers. Many Camden residents have limited access to cars. There isn't a tremendous amount of public transit to that area. And, it is on the side of the road that is only accessible when a motorist drives from the suburbs to Philadelphia, rather than from Camden to the suburbs.
The reality is the failed ShopRite project was one that used the plight of Camden residents as a political expedient to send tax dollars to developers under the guise that it would help the city when the only people actually benefiting were the suburban businessmen. This is the political model that now Congressman Norcross and Mayor Dana Redd prefer. As long as Camden stays depressed, the tax dollars can flow freely to their own companies, political contributors, and friends.
Much has been written about the struggles Camden has had with violence, drugs, and education. If you want kids to learn more, they have to be properly nourished. If you want kids to feel secure, they need to have food. Camden needs more than one new supermarket. The city likely needs at least three spaced across the city to make the kind of baseline difference that is needed.
Camden deserves our attention. The residents deserves our help. Camden should not be forgotten.