Rhode Island Food Bank leader leaving<br> to tackle global hunger

Bernard J. Beaudreau
Position: Executive director, Rhode Island Community Food Bank
Background: A Rhode Island native, Beaudreau took the helm at the Food Bank in 1995, after working for 11 years at Oxfam America in Boston, where he did fundraising and outreach. He previously had worked in fundraising, program planning, community organizing and grant-writing for local institutions and nonprofits.
Education: B.S. in urban affairs, 1977, and Master of Community Planning, 1979, both from the University of Rhode Island.
Residence: Providence
Age: 52

After 11 years at the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, and at the forefront of the fight against poverty in the state, Bernard J. Beaudreau is taking on a new challenge: helping to build a worldwide network of food banks and help start new food banks wherever they’re needed.

He is leaving Oct. 31 to join the Global FoodBanking Network, a new organization based in Chicago that aims to bring together food-bank leaders from Europe to the Americas to Africa, and promote the establishment of food-banking programs where they don’t exist.

PBN: How big was the Food Bank when you started, compared with how it is now?

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BEAUDREAU: It had a budget of about $800,000. We had food distribution of about 3 million pounds. Now, it’s got a budget of $4.1 million and distribution of 9 million pounds, so it’s tripled in output. It’s also developed other programs – a job-training program and a feeding program, the Kids Café, and transportation services to deliver food to the food pantries.

PBN: What kind of people go to food pantries?

BEAUDREAU: A whole wide range of people, from people who are on public assistance and really do not get enough to make ends meet – that’s a small percentage – to, more often than not, people who are disabled, and a growing number of working people. People who are working one, two jobs who, because of the housing costs, the rising costs of living … they have to go to food pantries to get that one or two bags of food a month to get by. We collect monthly statistics, and there are about 51,000 people in this state that we get food to on a monthly basis. … It’s one in 20 Rhode Islanders.

PBN: How many people were you serving in 1995?

BEAUDREAU: We didn’t have accurate data-collection methods, but I estimate it at under 25,000.

PBN: Has Rhode Island gotten poorer, or have you done a really good job with outreach?

BEAUDREAU: Both. Our statistics show that the poverty rate has increased. The percentage of households that are experiencing hunger, according to the official U.S. Department of Agriculture annual food insecurity study, has grown from 2.6 percent, in 1998, of households in the state experiencing hunger, to 4.2 percent in 2004. … Rhode Island has the highest hunger rate in New England and the highest growth rate.

PBN: Why is hunger rising?

BEAUDREAU: The underpinnings of poverty have to do with lack of economic opportunity and lack of supports for working people and people who are really in need. Minimum wages in our country have not increased in eight years. They have in Rhode Island, but not anywhere close to the financial needs of households. Public assistance in Rhode Island has not increased in 18 years, in real dollars. … The welfare standard used to be about 75 or 80 percent of the federal poverty level. It’s now like 45.

PBN: How do they live?

BEAUDREAU: They scrape by … but when you have that level of poverty, you have conflicting and compounding other issues that cause people to have failure in school, failure at work, lots of failure, because they’re just not whole enough to be able to get through the day. When we talk about hunger in Rhode Island and the United States, yes, it is hunger and missing meals, but the biggest thing is the burden it puts on you, not to know where your next meal is coming from. It’s a terror.

PBN: You’ve become more and more involved in trying to shape public policy. What role do you see for government in ending hunger?

BEAUDREAU: Government can only do a few things to help directly, like increase the amount of affordable housing, or [provide energy subsidies]. … But tax policy has everything to do with the average working household and their ability to not just survive [but] to thrive. … So when we see, in Rhode Island, tax breaks for the wealthy, which in fact affected just about 600 households, and gave them a $7 million tax break, it’s just unconscionable in my mind.

PBN: Where do you see the Food Bank in the future?

BEAUDREAU: I see the Food Bank struggling to keep up with the food supply that we have grown to, partly because the food industry has changed. It’s gotten more efficient, and there’s less food donations coming out of retail; “unsaleables,” close-to-code food that has traditionally been given to food banks, is now seen as valuable and marketable to secondary sources. So that part of our food supply has gone down. …

Overall, every food bank in the country has had to use an increasing part of its budget to purchase food. … I also see the Food Bank, because of that, needing to appeal to a broader part of the public for donations and volunteers. A third dimension … is to keep asking the hard questions and keep up the dialogue with businesses, with the community, with government leaders.