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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Pandemic has nearly tripled the number of RI households facing hunger

Food Summit Talks Food Inequality in Pandemic World

By GRACE KELLY/ecoRI News staff

Every year, the University of Rhode Island Food Systems Summit brings movers, shakers, and thinkers together to talk about foodways in our small state. And each year, new projects are highlighted, businesses are introduced, and new ways of thinking about how we grow, ship, and eat food are discussed.

This year’s summit, held Jan. 20 virtually, was largely centered on the disruption to the state’s food systems caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the food insecurity that has followed.

One in four households — 25.2 percent — in the state lacks adequate food, according to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s 2020 Status Report on Hunger.

This bleak assessment comes after years of betterment. As recently as 2019, food insecurity among all Rhode Island households was at 9.1 percent, the lowest it had been since 2008.

In discussing this, the summit hosted a slew of presentations, including panels about what is being done by the university to mitigate food insecurity on campus, research presentations that showed what many nonprofits and government agencies went through at the height of the pandemic, and a keynote speech by Viraj Puri, co-founder and CEO Gotham Greens, on the virtues of urban farming as a way of strengthening the food supply chain.

But while the broad picture painted of a food system in turmoil, a few key problems in mitigating this crisis stuck out: language barriers, cultural differences in food preferences, the newly food insecure, and overworked employees.

Associate professor Alison Tovar and graduate student Fatima Tobar Santamaria, both of URI, interviewed a variety of people from various community partners to paint a picture of these issues.

“I think a lot of people move into a food insecure space and never would have saw themselves as being that and don’t always know how to access public resources,” said a city agent that Tovar and Santamaria spoke with. “Oh, is this when I sign up for SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program]? What is SNAP? How does that work? There’s a learning curve.”

Another interesting find by Tobar and her team were issues relating to culturally relevant foods.

“We have this organization that is doing meal deliveries and we support that, but you know, keeping dietary health, cultural kind of preferences … is really important, because there will be people that get a food box donation and people will just throw the food out sometimes because it’s not what they like,” said a representative of a Rhode Island Health Equity Zone. “Food is very personal, and I think that … it’s a challenge to try to feed people, but also allow them to have options.”

Other presenters focused on the growing food needs of college students, with Kathy Collins, director of student affairs at URI, citing one national study of 123 universities that found that 45 percent of respondents were food insecure in the 30 days prior to taking the survey.

“And this was all reported before the pandemic,” Collins said.

Dr. Jacqui Tisdale, the university’s assistant director of outreach and intervention, shared that at URI specifically about 13 percent of students are food insecure.

“And we know that that number is probably underreported,” Tisdale said.

While these presentations shed light on issues facing the food insecure and those who serve them, some of the summit’s presentations felt a little less relevant to the issues at hand.

Puri from Gotham Greens spoke of the virtues of urban, localized farming and how it takes out the middleman, such as long-haul shipping, from the supply chain. But attendees weren’t sold on this, and peppered Puri with hard-hitting questions, asking if his company pays employees enough to buy their own products at Whole Foods and what the New York City-based company is doing to combat gentrification in Olneyville, where it recently set up shop.

During times of extreme disruption, poverty, and food insecurity, extolling the virtues of locally grown butter lettuce seemed out of place.

In the end, the 3-hour summit largely told viewers what many likely already knew: Rhode Island has a food problem, and there’s a lot we need to do to mitigate it. What the concrete solutions are remains to be seen.