Incollingo’s Market in Salem City closed in September of 2017, a closure that resulted in the city being designating as a food desert.
Now, almost four years later, Incollingo’s Market in Penns Grove may close, potentially classifying the tiny township — spanning less than one square mile — as a food desert. The USDA defines a food desert as a low-income area where people don’t have access to stores that sell healthy and affordable food.
“There’s no date. There’s a possibility that could happen,” Ed Incollingo, the store’s owner, told NJ Advance Media. “It’s depending on a few different things beyond my control.”
As the country has experienced a surge in food insecurity amid the coronavirus pandemic, some New Jersey communities that have residents struggling with food insecurity are finding themselves in an even bleaker situation in the months to come.
Some of those townships, including Salem City and Penns Grove, are located in Salem County, where 12.4% of the population lives below the poverty rate and the median household income is $68,531, according to U.S. Census data.
The South Jersey county is often forgotten when it comes to funding and resources, said Alex DelCollo, the family and community health sciences coordinator at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Salem County.
“So when you’re hungry, you eat what you have and most of the time — a lot of the time — it’s not exactly the healthiest choices but it’s what you can get,” in a place like Salem City or Penns Grove, DelCollo told NJ Advance Media.
The nearest grocery store to Salem City is the Save-a-Lot in Pennsville, a 10-minute drive, while the other grocery stores in the county include an Acme in Woodstown and Pennsville, Elmer IGA, and a Walmart in Pennsville, plus Incollingo’s in Penns Grove.
For Penns Grove residents, if Incollingo’s Market closes, the closest grocery store will be the Acme in Pennsville. It is roughly an 11-minute drive, but a 21-minute trek using public transportation, according to Google Maps.
Other than those few grocery stores in the county, residents must rely on Dollar Generals or equivalents for food, which often don’t sell healthy or fresh food.
Further complicating the lack of fresh food options in the county is the issue of transportation, according to Fred Wasiak, the president and CEO of the Food Bank of South Jersey.
“So when you think about not only urban, but suburban, there’s public transportation, whether it’s bus, Uber, but out in Salem, even our pantries we have out there, it’s difficult to get people from farmlands and the rural areas (to the pantries),” Wasiak told NJ Advance Media.
The pandemic has increased the percentage of food insecure residents in Salem County from 11% to 16%, Wasiak said.
Still, community leaders and others in the county are working to find long-term solutions to the crisis, even after the pandemic subsides.
Vicki Palaganas, an environmental science teacher at Penns Grove High School in Carneys Point, recently applied for a $10,000 grant with the Sustainable Jersey for Schools Grants Program, which is funded by the NJEA.
If she receives the grant, Palaganas would start an aquaponics lab with the high school. She said she’ll find out if she receives the money around mid-February.
Aquaponics is a food production system where fish are raised in a tank and their waste, through a filtration system, feeds the plants. The plants, which are grown without soil in the nutrient-rich water, then clean the water and return it to the fish tank, for a closed-loop, sustainable process.
The lab would help the food insecure area because “we can offer, not only organic vegetables, but we can also offer a fish — a protein and a plant — and have it on somebody’s plate in no time,” Palaganas said.
“So if this catches on, high school students are equipped to do something like this because this is what they learn in class,” she said, “so why not put their hands to good use and feed the community while they’re at it.”
Other groups are attempting to entice more grocery stores to the area.
DelCollo, the coordinator at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, said the Salem Health and Wellness Foundation funded a grocery store feasibility study for Salem City. Another group, the Live Healthy Salem County coalition, has been looking for planning grants to bring a food hub to the area, she said.
But neither attempt has been particularly successful so far, DelCollo said. The area is a small place, she said, which makes it difficult to attract a grocery store.
“Because you figure how many people they have to drive by,” she said. “They look at how many people live within a certain square miles of the place, that’s even possible for them to make money as a grocery store there and we just haven’t gotten anything from it.”
Penns Grove Mayor LaDaena Thomas said the possibility of losing the township’s only grocery store has been “very frustrating” for residents. She said she’s also been talking to several grocery store chains in hopes of bringing them to the township.
But officials are still searching for solutions.
Farmers markets are “also an option for us, until we can get a grocery store here, but everyone should be able to easily walk or take affordable public transportation to get good quality, healthy food,” Thomas said.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.
Brianna Kudisch may be reached at [email protected]. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.