Developing pillars of support: EDA exec explains how organization is focusing on community efforts such as child care, food insecurity

Tara Colton. (NJEDA)

After warning that there would be chirps of kids’ voices in the background on the phone, she felt the need to add that they weren’t a plant.

But they did conveniently serve the point New Jersey Economic Development Authority leader Tara Colton was making: After 28-plus months of COVID-19 lockdowns, quarantines, remote work and remote learning, disentangling work life and child care responsibilities is trickier than ever.

And that’s one of the reasons that Colton, executive vice president of economic security for the NJEDA, said there’s been a reevaluation of what sort of programs might elevate the ability of New Jersey and its residents to succeed in today’s economy.

“Without something like child care, our economy cannot function — let alone flourish,” she said. “We view it as part of the economic development infrastructure of our state.”

Whether it’s child care or healthy food options for Jerseyans, some of the initiatives billed as economic development-centered in the Garden State have a different look.

In the past year, NJEDA has taken the center stage on a $54.5 million pilot program to improve child care facilities, as well as a $240 million funding program enabled by the Food Desert Relief Act to combat food insecurity.

“I think the EDA leading the charge with the help of our sister agencies truly reinforces how these kinds of efforts are investments in our economy, not charity,” Colton said. “They’re strategic ideas to help all Jerseyans to get their basic needs met, and get the dignity and opportunity they deserve.

“It’s really broadening the scope of what it means to care about economic development to a more human-centered definition that brings a lot of weight and a very real impact.”

And the latest economic trends might be providing early validation for the two aforementioned programs Colton and her agency are involved with this year.

For one, the agency’s funding pool for communities designated as food deserts — funds meant to plug gaps in places where there are few quality options for food or groceries — is being fine-tuned right as inflation and food price rises in particular have Jerseyans anteing up more in checkout lines.

The NJEDA and local food banks have already reported that the pandemic brought the amount of food-insecure Jerseyans to a total of more than 1.2 million. Colton said that, while the value of SNAP, or food stamps, has increased over the past several years, households are going through grocery budgets at a quicker rate.

“The rising price of food and groceries and compounding supply chain issues have only exacerbated that problem,” she said.

Colton added these are basic needs in Jerseyans’ own backyards — literally. Someone might not even notice neighbors struggling to make ends meet, she said, as many take the bus the next town over to a food bank so they don’t risk seeing anyone they know.

As for the economic development tie-in — for her, it’s obvious.

“It’s not a major leap to think about what it’s like to go to work hungry, because you’re sacrificing meals yourself so that your child can eat, and how that means the place that employs you isn’t getting the best employee,” she said. “And then, you also have the costs. Hospital systems and private health insurers have been growing investments in the social determinants of health. They’re all taking strategic approaches to the factors, like whether you’ve had something to eat today, that contribute to someone being healthy and preventing costly diseases in our health care system.”

At the same time, the state’s economic development arm is connecting the dots between other basic needs and economic outcomes.

Child care facilities are getting a boost from a just-approved program that’s offering grants, in the range of $50,000 to $200,000, for the purpose of making repairs and upgrades to these facilities.

“There’s reams of research on the positive impact that caring for children in certain environments can have,” she said. “The same data exists with food security.”

The effort is intended to provide safer environments to the children of working families. It’s also shoring up the revenues and economic power of child care providers, many of which receive payments from governmental agencies that are hard to come by with unaddressed facility issues.

Colton said these haven’t historically been initiatives that an economic development agency would bring to the table.

“But they’re very sorely overdue,” she said, adding that she was proud to be part of a New Jersey leadership team that “sees it as an economic priority; not just a moral obligation; not just the right thing to do.”