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Friday, November 24, 2023

New report shows record highs for hunger in Rhode Island

Hunger in Rhode Island is too pervasive

by Christopher Shea, Rhode Island Current

Food insecurity is at an all time high in the Ocean State, according to a new report from the Rhode Island Community Food Bank released Tuesday.

In the last year, over 77,000 Rhode Islanders received some form of food assistance — up 30% from 2022. Of those seeking help from food pantries in Rhode Island, 72% are families with children and senior adult households.

The food bank’s report also found that about 29% of Rhode Island households reported this year they cannot afford adequate food. That number is down from last year, but is 11% higher than in 2021.

“People need help,” Rhode Island Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff said in an interview.

Schiff attributes the increase in Rhode Islanders accessing food pantries to two major factors: high living costs and the end of pandemic-era food programs and benefits.

During the pandemic, 88,000 Rhode Island families enrolled in the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to cover the cost of groceries, Schiff said.

After Congress ended the emergency allocation in March 2023, Schiff said SNAP benefits in Rhode Island were reduced by $13.4 million per month. The average household lost $155 a month in food benefits.

“That’s a week’s worth of groceries,” Schiff said.

Meanwhile, the cost of food rose by 11% while the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment grew 14% to an average of $1,444 per month. Those costs leave people with choices: either pay for shelter or for food.

“And you can’t live without food,” Schiff said. “So people turn to food pantries to ensure there’s some food on the table.”

High prices are also impacting Rhode Island’s food pantry network.

East Bay Community Action Program CEO Rilwan Feyisitan said at a virtual town hall Tuesday sponsored by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank that his network of food pantries and mobile trucks saw a 40% increase in use in just the last few months.

“And we’re not dealing with 40% more volunteers,” Feyisitan said. “Our staff is taking a lot more tonnage and a lot more food through the door to make sure the needs are there.”

The Rhode Island General Assembly this year allocated $3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to assist the state’s food pantry network, but Schiff said that was just a one-time allotment. To better meet demand, Schiff is asking lawmakers to increase state funding for the food bank from $550,000 to $1 million.

“At least we could depend upon that amount every year,” Schiff said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Rhode Island Community Food Bank had thousands of orders prepared at its Providence distribution center. 

“Things have been pretty busy here,” said food bank spokesperson Kate MacDonald.

MacDonald noted that the food bank distributes 300,000 pounds of food any given week.

Schiff is also calling on Rhode Island’s congressional delegation to bring back the additional SNAP benefits and reinstate the child tax credit.

At the state level, Schiff wants lawmakers to make school breakfast and lunch free for all students in the fiscal year 2025 budget. Much like pandemic-era SNAP benefits, in June 2022 the federal government also ended a program that gave free meals to all Rhode Island students.

The shuttering of that program made the state return to a tiered system that charges parents based on their income level. Because of that, the report said Rhode Island children participating in school breakfast and lunch programs dropped in 2023 by 27% and 15% respectively.

States such as Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont have permanent free school meal policies.

“We can do it too,” Schiff said.

In May, the Rhode Island Senate passed a bill seeking to provide free school meals for the fiscal year 2024 budget. The legislation failed to make it past the House Finance Committee.

Rep. Justine Caldwell, an East Greenwich Democrat, plans to sponsor free school meal legislation during the upcoming legislative session. She said at the virtual town hall that the cost of a free lunch program in Rhode Island would be between $38 million to $40 million, but it can be funded through grant programs and reimbursements from the federal government.

“Good policy like this should have been done yesterday,” she said. “We’re righting a wrong. We give free technology to students, but we don’t give free meals.”

2023 RI Food Bank Report



Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.