Mayor Ras Baraka participated in a 2018 holiday event to provide food to displaced families. Photo credit: City of Newark Press Office

Newark mayor pledges $2 million in emergency grants to help combat food deserts

6 mins read

Amidst food shortages, Newark’s crippling food insecurity has worsened. Mayor Ras Baraka hopes the additional aid to local organizations–as opposed to residents directly–will alleviate food deserts in the Bricks.

On Saturday morning, the New Afrikan Black Panther Party passed out free food to residents on South Orange Avenue. Afrika Ibiang, one of the group’s organizers, reported on his live Instagram feed that in less than two hours, the dozens of boxes of fresh produce they supplied were almost empty. However, the group is one of the few providing food pantry services from their own reserves.

Like many in the U.S., there are far too many Newarkers who go hungry; especially in a post-pandemic city. As reported by the U.S. Census, Newark has a population of 311,549 and a poverty rate of 27.8 percent. Meaning, nearly one of every three people struggles with food instability. 

To address the city’s burgeoning food insecurity via community grants, Newark mayor Ras Baraka announced the Nourishing Newark Community Grants Program, which is set to earmark $2 million. The mayor’s hope is to help local businesses and coalitions struggling with adverse pandemic-era economic losses. Administered by the Newark Office of Sustainability, the initial awards come from the American Rescue Plan relief aid and can go upwards of $350,000.

“We understand the challenge many families face when it comes to putting fresh, healthy food on the table,” expressed Mayor Baraka in a press release. “[T]hrough the Nourishing Newark Community Grants Program we are inviting non-profit organizations, for-profit entities, schools, urban farmers, community gardeners and others to work with us in meeting this ongoing community need.”

To be found eligible, entities must be Newark-based and resident-focused. Suitable project categories include: Growing and Urban Agriculture; Regular Community Distribution; Training and Community Education. As well, eligible candidates should focus programming on combating food deserts, improving healthful nutritious food access, or providing food assistance to households affected by pandemic-related food insecurity.

The Nourishing Newark Community Grants Program application deadline is Thursday, March 17 at 5 p.m.

Additionally, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) has listed each of Newark’s five wards in the top 10 of their proposed New Jersey food desert communities list. Hence, the state agency wishes to allocate some of the Food Desert Relief Act’s $240 million

“Food insecurity is an ongoing crisis and gathering public input to solidify the Food Desert Communities designations will help connect residents facing hunger with fresh farm products grown and produced at many of New Jersey’s 10,000 farms,” said NJ Department of Agriculture Secretary, Douglas Fisher.

Also according to the NJEDA, seeks to augment access to fresh, healthy food and develop new methods to lessen the amount of food deserts throughout the state. Namely, in underserved low-income communities where the issue is peaking. Available funding is intended to occur via tax credits and loans, even grants or technical assistance. 

Yet, some critics claim this is the same old song played during election time. The timing of the Baraka move falls just before local  elections when critical votes–chiefly among the unguaranteed blocs–are needed. This time around, Baraka is again the primary candidate, along with using an age-old strategy of which he endorses and promotes a list of candidates to create something like his dream team. Brick city elections are being held in about one month, on May 10.


Currently, Newarkers are facing starvation with a lack of resources to purchase quality victuals. These convenience shops, known as delis and bodegas, sell a finite stock of items to locals. Since they are located on the corners of high-trafficked streets, the stores are easy to get to, thus residents get much of their daily foodstuffs there. 

At the same time, Newark has little to offer when it comes to grocery stores. The city has very few big-box markets, with the two biggest nearing the gentrified downtown section. Aside from the oft-expensive Whole Foods Market, the country’s largest retailer-owned cooperative, Wakefern Food Corporation, owns Shoprite of Newark on Springfield Avenue. 

The latter opened at the top of October 2015 and has since become one of, if not, the largest supermarket in the city. Yet for South ward residents, the trek to the Central ward poses multiple issues including a lack of accessibility to-and-fro, as well as overcrowding. 

Beforehand, the other major supermarket in the area was Pathmart on South Orange Avenue. However, it closed in 2015 after the liquidation of its parent company, The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, filed for bankruptcy. Even then, the titan was deemed as the expensive market. Eventually, its closure forced locals to find quality nutrition in other surrounding towns, a serious limitation if one does not drive nor can afford a vehicle.  

“Once they closed PathMart, my mom would reluctantly send me the distance to [Shoprite] Milburn because it is a quicker, easier experience–the shelves were always packed,” recounts south ward Newark native Andrea Fosuhene, MPH to Ark Republic. 

She continued, “If I was not here, what are my parents going to do? Are elders supposed to hop on NJ Transit with a month’s worth of groceries? No. So, [locals] go to the bodega.”

Indeed, other local alternatives including Xtra, Food Depot, Seabra Foods, or Mi Pueblo Food Center, experience chronic under-stocking and quality concerns. Not to mention, they are typically limited to one location in random parts of a ward. So, Newarkers frequent corner stores for their daily needs.

A food what?

Newark is one of many cities long-tackling food insecurity and deserts. From New Orlean’s Lower Ninth Ward to Chicago’s South and West sides, even Norfolk in Southeastern Virginia, poor Black and Brown people are dying of poor nutritional options. All the while, others of higher social prestige in the same city may not have to worry. 

“[T]here are four Food Lions in the immediate area–all of them suck now because the [food] shortage hit down here–but the two closest to the [Army] base have everything in them. The one closest to me never has anything. Maybe it has to do with the [area’s] demographics,” former Newark-turned-Virginia resident Jeffrey Iyunade told the Ark.

Since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Right, adequate food has been a legally binding human rights obligation by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. As defined by the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA), a food desert is typically a low-income area where residents have difficulty finding or accessing retail outlets selling healthy and affordable foods. 

The issue had gotten so bad in 2011, that the USDA’s Economic Research Service created a Food Desert Locator to identify a census tract of neighborhoods where access to a supermarket or large grocery store is stifled by a lack of transportation or resources to get there and back. 

The USDA said a census tract is a low-income county subdivision that has low-access to food. To qualify, they either: meet a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, or a household’s income is 80 percent below that of the surrounding area or statewide averages. In April 2021, the USDA reported 13.5 million Americans in about 6,500, or 10 percent of the approximately 65,000 U.S. census tracts, live in food deserts. 

Furthermore, the government agency defined low access as at least 500 people or 33 percent of the population living more than one mile from a food retailer that makes a minimum of $2 million per year. Typically, the tracts average about 4,000 people or so. 

Said reporting helps identify places threatened by food insecurity. Hence, their new visibility can better help in identifying who is affected by the problem and fund their pursuits accordingly. In addition, residents whose access leans on cheap, fast foods run an increased risk of heart disease, the number one killer of Black and Latino populations says the CDC

In the case of Newark, a metropolis with an African American representation of 50.1 percent, and 36.3 percent Latin, the combined total 86.4 percent of the entire city carries significant health risks. With the collected data, the agency vies to pinpoint better public health resources that can curb the proliferation of chronic health issues such as hypertension or high blood pressure. 

Equitable distribution

The mayor’s office mentioned Hello Fresh, Newark Working Kitchens, and Newark Public Schools, as being responsible for distributing over 8 million meals during the pandemic. While their efforts fed many during the toughest economic times during the shutdown, they are still limited in reach and cycling dollars back into the community. 

Hello Fresh, a German, publicly traded meal-kit company based in Berlin, Germany is a large corporate enterprise. Newark Public Schools, which provided grab-and-go meals, is already a publicly funded entity. That said, Newark Working Kitchens offers a revenue stream for local eateries. It is a collective of restaurants mostly situated in the Central ward with a few in the South and East, they exclude a host of smaller diners and food stops. 

To add to possible distribution woes, the City of Newark’s dolling out of pandemic money lacks a track record of efficiency. During the pandemic, part of the issue with organizations receiving money was in the difficulty in understanding the city’s distribution process. Multiple rounds of funding were announced to support local businesses over the last two years, but uneven transparency proved to be a frustration for some. “I applied to a few rounds of funding and never heard anything back, but found out [I did not receive anything] when I went onto the city’s website,” said one business owner to Ark Republic who asked to remain unidentified for concern of reprisals.

For more information the City will hold an Informational Meeting about this program on Wednesday, March 2, at 1 p.m. Register at: The webinar will also provide a live stream via Facebook Live on

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