Gov. Phil Murphy has said he wants to end food insecurity in New Jersey, where a Food Research and Action Center analysis says one in 12 households don’t have reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.
To fight hunger across the state, lawmakers have allocated more funding for food banks and created tax incentives to increase access to healthy meals in 50 state-designated food desert communities. And this year, they inaugurated the country’s first Office of the Food Security Advocate.
Murphy appointed Mark Dinglasan, 42, the former executive director of CUMAC in Paterson, an anti-hunger nonprofit, to lead the office. WNYC reporter Karen Yi spoke with Dinglasan about his vision for the position and what he has planned for the next year. The conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Mark, you’ve been in this role for three months now. When Gov. Murphy first appointed you, you said that ending hunger is not about giving people food, but advocating for food security. I’m curious what you meant by that and how that’s going to inform your approach to this job.
When you’re talking about macro issues, the easiest thing for us to do is to create macro solutions, right?
So a perfect example: There’s a whole lot of people that are hungry in [a given] city in northern New Jersey. Let’s get as much canned goods as we can and blanket that community. But for me it’s always been about: OK, you’ve got a macro issue, how do we drill down to what’s creating that issue? Create and pilot a solution that is scalable, sustainable, but also can be community-driven? And then, is what you create replicable?
For this role, I believe that there’s very little need to create new programs. There’s really good programs, Karen, that exist. The hardest part is always: How do we make the connections and how do we bring all the players that we need to the table?
Do you think that creating this office is an important step for the state to take to begin to recognize this way of thinking, this more holistic, even trauma-informed approach to ending hunger?
Absolutely, and this is one of the broadest policy strokes that I have ever seen in terms of policy to address food security. Let’s create a one-of-a-kind office in the nation that sits in the executive branch whose main marching order is to move the needle on food security.
During the early days of the pandemic, food pantries were overrun and families who never before needed assistance were waiting hours in line for food. What long-term effects did the pandemic have on food insecurity in the state?
The immediate problems that we were seeing were going to have long-term ramifications in terms of economic stability of our families, childhood obesity and mental health. It looks different, right? Because it’s not lines going down the block around the corner and up the block.
But it’s still there. Families have not been able to catch their breath yet because of the effects of the pandemic. So you’ve got rising costs of food, challenges with transportation, access to supportive services.
How will you measure success?
There are very immediate things we have to do that I’ll say, “OK, we are being successful?” One, building a team, a small and agile team that can work across departments. How do I say we’re successfully working across departments? It’s these small projects and programs that I mentioned to you, where if my small and agile team can assist in getting those programs and projects off the ground, then we’re being successful in the short term.
And then long-term outcomes. Based on the short-term success and midterm success we’re working towards, are we able to create and build self-efficacy and agency into communities we’re serving? It’s a great measure to say that we’ve increased enrollment in SNAP, but a greater and more powerful long-term outcome, which we can’t claim right now because we have to work towards it, is: How many families were able to say today, “I’m going to decide where I buy my food? Today I’m going to be able to go to work and not have to worry about paying the rent?” Have we created economic mobility, economic security at that agency, so communities believe they have control over their decisions and the outcomes of their decisions?
You have a $1 million budget for this office. Can you tell me about what new initiatives or what people who are food insecure can expect to see in the next year?
I personally am wholly dedicated to making sure the agencies and the programs that parent, that caregiver will find on Google, will find through whatever platform to say “I need help” — I’m wholly dedicated to making sure those agencies that people experiencing food insecurity will reach out to know that this office exists and knows that our standards are treating people like people, empowering community and building agency.
And when people come to us for help, saying, “I see you, I hear you. How can we help?”
The pandemic taught us we are able, we are fully capable of thinking outside the box, of transforming our programs, of being trauma informed. I think for us it’s about keeping each other accountable and saying, “We did this in 2020 because we had no choice but now that we have a choice and we have some breathing room. Can we be consistent about it?”