PROVIDENCE – With the COVID-19 pandemic fading in the rearview mirror, there was a belief that food insecurity would decrease with people returning to work and pushing toward economic recovery within Rhode Island.
Unfortunately, the exact opposite has happened, thanks to inflation and the sudden end to federal COVID-19 relief programs. Now, the need for food in the Ocean State has reached record levels, with the Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s top executive beginning to feel frustrated over the situation.
According to the food bank’s 2023 Status Report on Hunger in Rhode Island released Tuesday, 77,500 people on average monthly were served by the food bank this year between January and September. That is 30% more than last year and 49% more than in 2019 before the pandemic hit.
Additionally, about 29% of households in Rhode Island, close to 1 in 3, reported this year they cannot afford adequate food. While the risk decreased from last year, it’s still 11% higher than what it was in 2021, per the status report.
Also, the report noted that 38% of households with at least one child younger than the age of 18 reported they cannot afford food, as did 48% of Black households and 51% of Latino households.
“It is frustrating [to keep seeing this],” Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff told Providence Business News. “The report is an attempt to understand why things have gotten worse for low-income families. Also, this report is a call to action.”
Along with inflation, Schiff says the report highlights the federal government eliminating emergency allocations of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits installed during the pandemic, which at the time enabled about 88,000 Rhode Island households to acquire more food.
When the program ended back in March three years after the pandemic took hold, SNAP benefits in Rhode Island were reduced by $13.4 million per month, a 32% drop, according to the report. On average, each SNAP-enrolled household lost $155 per month in food benefits at a time when housing and food costs were increasing.
Schiff said, in retrospect, it’s now “clear” that closing down the SNAP emergency allotment should have been done “more gradually.” “That $155 a month is a week’s worth of groceries,” he said.
Compounding the problem, between July 2022 and this past July, food prices went up 11% in Rhode Island. In that same period, the fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment grew 14% to an average of $1,444 per month.
All the while, the report notes that the state’s $13 hourly minimum wage produces earnings of $27,040 for a full-time worker, not enough to lift a family out of poverty. Schiff says this type of inflation is a bigger burden for low-income families because basic living expenses, such as utility bills, rent and food, “make up such a large portion of their household budget.”
“The continuation of high food prices means that people are more in need. It is not a solution to keep sending people to food pantries,” Schiff said.
Schiff also said the food bank is doing all it can to meet the high demand in the state, especially with the state allocating $550,000 to the food bank this year – $100,000 than previously – to acquire 3.5 million pounds of food. But he says there is a “capacity limit” both at the food bank’s distribution center on Niantic Avenue and in the local pantries that work with the food bank to distribute food.
“Some [pantries] have limitations in space and in storage for fresh produce that needs to be refrigerated,” Schiff said. There is a capacity limit to this food assistance; it’s not infinite. It’s important the government and the public recognize that.”
Schiff also emphasized that the $3 million in American Rescue Plan Act COVID-19 recovery funds was a one-time allocation, so community assistance in supporting the food bank will be greatly needed going forward to help the organization meet the state’s food insecurity crisis.
The report also called for some action steps, such as asking the R.I. General Assembly to increase the state funding for the food bank to $1 million and calling on the state’s congressional delegation to boost SNAP benefits and reinstate the expanded child tax credit. It also calls on state government to make school breakfast and lunch free for all students in the 2025 fiscal budget, citing annual declines in children participating in school meal programs after the COVID-19 free meal program ended in 2022 and led to “a lot of kids not eating,” Schiff said.
Schiff says he is confident that the food bank will be supported by state government, stating such support currently exists and the latest status report “will help” drive home the situation.
“This [free school meal program] will directly improve the health and learning for children,” Schiff said. Regarding seeking congressional action, Schiff says Congress has made a “commitment” to pass in early 2024 a new farm bill, which funds SNAP.
He said this is “the opportunity” for Democrats and Republicans to negotiate increases in SNAP levels and get it in the farm bill, which is negotiated every five years and also includes support for farmers. He said the community needs the state’s congressmen to be “loud” and be clear that SNAP increases will help low-income families across the U.S., including Rhode Island.
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