As supermarkets, retailers and restaurants scramble to get their plans in order ahead of New Jersey's May 4 end date for single-use plastic bags, operations that serve the Garden State's neediest residents will have more time to prepare.

And they needed it.

"The pandemic is still with us and very much impacting the programs that we serve," said Carlos Rodriguez, president and CEO of Community FoodBank of New Jersey.

Since the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the Garden State, food banks and pantries in New Jersey have been relying heavily on the very bags that are targeted by the state's ban, so they could pre-package items for needy families who pre-COVID may have gone inside a pantry to look around.

"None of us anticipated that we'd be in year 3 of COVID," said Triada Stampas, president and CEO of Fulfill (formerly the FoodBank of Monmouth & Ocean Counties).

Fulfill still sees up to 150 vehicles every Friday for pop-the-trunk distributions out of their facility in Neptune, Stampas said.

Stampas said the health emergency has made it difficult for their network of providers to envision how to implement the upcoming bag ban.

A law signed on March 25, though, offers more breathing room. Food banks and pantries in the state now have until Nov. 4 to get on board with the single-use carryout bag ban.

The measure provides 500,000 free reusable bags to food banks across the Garden State.

"This 6-month time period also gives us a chance to learn from our peer food banks and food pantries in other parts of the country that already have adopted single-use bag bans," Stampas said.

Stampas said the original bag-ban law was "purely punitive," focused mainly on potential fines for operations that don't comply. The law signed in March, she said, actually offers support.

Residents and businesses have had close to 18 months to prepare for May 4.

Compliance with the bag ban doesn't cost much, said Dena Mottola Jaborska, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, which advocates for economic justice. She suggested the ban does not hurt low-income residents.

"I think low-income people care just as much about the environment as everybody else," she said. "It's just a behavior change; it's not really an economic issue."

When the ban kicks in, single-use plastic bags will be prohibited in all stores and food service establishments (you can bring your own). Disposable paper bags will be off limits at supermarkets larger than 2,500 square feet.

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