R.I. Food Bank report: Hunger in state worse than during pandemic

Updated at 1:32 p.m.

PROVIDENCE – Food insecurity has gotten worse in Rhode Island this past year than it was during the COVID-19 pandemic, mostly due to inflation and key COVID-19 assistance programs expiring to help low-income individuals secure food.

That is according to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s 2022 Status Report on Hunger in Rhode Island, released Monday. The annual report analyzes how much food insecurity exists in the Ocean State with whom, how much demand has increased or decreased and what needs to be done to decrease hunger in the state.

According to the report, prices of food in Rhode Island have increased by 13% from July 2021 to this past July, which is making it harder for lower- and moderate-income families to purchase the food they need. Additionally, 31% of all households in Rhode Island in 2022 cannot afford adequate food. That figure, per the report, is about 6% higher than in 2020 when the pandemic wreaked havoc across the world and almost four times higher than what it was from 2017 through 2019 (9%).

Plus, the number of people serviced by the food bank has gone up over the course of the year. The report states that 63,339 people were assisted by the food bank during the month of August, which is more than 18,000 than those served during the month of January and 12,727 more than the amount of people the food bank served in August 2021.

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Food bank CEO Andrew Schiff told Providence Business News the inflation and increased food insecurity across the state are two of the nonprofit’s biggest concerns at the moment. Plus, he also noted various COVID-19 federal emergency food programs, such as offering school meals for all children free of charge, the enhanced $3,000-$3,600 child tax credits and the extra special supplemental nutrition benefits program for women, infants and children to help purchase fruit and vegetables, have expired and were not renewed by U.S. Congress, further exasperating the state’s hunger problem.

“We’re seeing the effects of that,” Schiff said. “We’ve seen a 20% increase [in people seeking food assistance]. It’s really been dramatic. I think that’s a real sign that the combination of higher food prices and less government assistance is really taking a toll on low-income families.”

The emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, which gives eligible households an additional $153 per month for food assistance, is still active because the COVID-19 public health emergency is still in place. If and when the emergency is lifted, those benefits will go away, according to the report.

Schiff also said the food bank is worried about this upcoming winter because of inflation creating higher energy costs for individuals to heat their homes. The report says heating oil prices year to year increased by 43%, putting more of a burden on those in need.

“That’s layering on another inflationary pressure on the same families,” Schiff said. “We all know the [Federal Reserve] is taking steps to reduce inflation. It’s just that it’s very unlikely we’re going to see significant reductions in food prices, gas prices, heating oil prices in the next three to six months.”

Schiff said the food bank, to get ahead of the winter worries, has brought in “as much food” as possible to supply the partner organizations the food bank supplies, as well as brought in more money to keep up with the expected demand. He also hopes Congress will reinstate some of the emergency food assistance programs because “that will really help.”

The report also notes the R.I. General Assembly enacted legislation, such as establishing an $11.5 million SNAP Incentive Program, a one-time $250-per-child state tax credit and increased the food bank’s annual funding by $100,000. The food bank receives $450,000 in state funding annually now, Schiff said.

However, the report calls on Gov. Daniel J. McKee to make school lunches and breakfasts free for all students and for the state’s Congressional delegation re reinstate the expanded federal child tax credits.

(CORRECTION: The Rhode Island Community Food Bank received $450,000 in state funding this year, up from $350,000 the previous year.)

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.