Chris Christie Accused of Using Nutrition Program Funding for Anti-Drug Campaign

By Paul Gaita 03/03/17

Christie's office has denied any connection between the ReachNJ campaign and the state's WIC program. 

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According to a report by NorthJersey.com, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's $2.6 million ReachNJ advertising campaign, which seeks to draw attention to the opioid epidemic in his state, was funded in part by money intended to promote nutrition counseling and immunization screening for low-income women and children.

Documents obtained by The Record and NorthJersey.com through the state's Open Public Records Act show that the contract the state is using to fund the ReachNJ hotline and website advertising also included a $1.5 million deal with the marketing agency Princeton Partners to promote the state's WIC program (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

A spokesperson for Christie's office said that $2.6 million was paid to Princeton Partners through "existing funds in the state budget," but declined to state exactly where the money was drawn from.

Christie's office has responded to inquiries about the funding and WIC by stating that the ReachNJ campaign has "absolutely no connection" to the WIC program.

The Department of Health later noted that it paid $149,810 to Princeton Partners for the WIC campaign between June and November of 2014, and kept the contract active for subsequent campaigns like ReachNJ. Princeton Partners has not responded to inquiries about the nature of its contract with the state.

The WIC program—which provides nutritious food to pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women, infants and children up to the age of five, as well as health care referrals and resources to buy food for low-income families—experienced high rates of enrollment between 2011 and 2015, but appeared to actually serve fewer women and children in 2015 than it did in 2013, the year before the launch of the state ad campaign.

Local WIC agencies served 290,150 individuals in 2013, but assisted only 281,658 New Jersey residents in 2015—the last year for which data was readily available. "It's counterintuitive that WIC would drop for that period," said Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

The media attention drawn to the ReachNJ/WIC story has spurred New Jersey representatives to call for a full accounting of where the funds came from and how they were distributed.

"The administration has to explain exactly how the state is paying for the addiction ad campaign, how much money has already been steered to it and how much they are planning to spend," said State Senator Nia Gill. "Refusing to provide this information is unacceptable."

Update: In an email to The Fix, Chris Christie's office writes that the reporting in The Record is inaccurate, saying that "the story is untrue. No funds from the federal Women, Infant and Children care program have been used for the opioid campaign. The documents provided to media outlets on the opioid campaign DO NOT show that any federal funds for the federal Women, Infant and Children care program were used for the campaign" and that "The Record appears to have confused or misread a 2014 proposal from a marketing company with our current opioid campaign."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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