Rhode Island is yet again the worst in New England according to the 2012 Status Report on Hunger. Data compiled by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Census shows more people in Rhode Island are struggling to afford and obtain food than those in neighboring states.
The survey conducted by the USDA and Census looks at food insecurity annually. Food security is defined as “consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living.” Conversely, food insecurity is limited access to adequate food.
According to the survey, Rhode Island has 15.5 percent food insecurity, a number that’s risen from 2008’s rate of 11.7. The 15.5 percent is broken down between moderate food insecurity (9.5 percent) and severe food insecurity, which climbed to 6 percent this year.
“It’s the economy,” said Andrew Schiff, CEO of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, which released the 2012 Status Report on Hunger in Rhode Island. Schiff says until the economy fully recovers, the demand for food subsidies and food banks will continue to be high.
Schiff said that many people have exhausted their unemployment benefits and now have no income with which to buy themselves and their families food.
“People have gone from being middle class … to the point where they can’t buy food,” he said.
The 2012 Status Report on Hunger highlights the story of Karen Jones, a single, working mother struggling to feed three teenage boys in a poor economy. In the report, Jones talks about how she urges her boys to eat dinner before she does. Often they refuse to eat unless there’s enough for her, too.
“If you go into any food pantry in the state, you meet people who are that close to hunger,” Schiff said. “That’s how vulnerable they are.”
Schiff said many people who were once gainfully employed now depend on food pantries for their meals.
“The face of the working poor has changed,” he said.
Pair the growing demand for food with a decrease in donations, and Schiff said everyone is feeling the squeeze.
According to Rhode Island Community Food Bank data, the number of donated pounds of food has steadily decreased from fiscal year 2009, when the numbers topped 8 million pounds. In fiscal year 2012, the food bank received just over 6 million pounds of donated goods.
Schiff said this has to do partly with the increased efficacy of food manufacturing and grocery market stocking methods. Now that wholesalers and retailers can keep better tabs on production and sales, there isn’t a surplus. Schiff said food banks used to get a lot of products that were slightly damaged, close to expiration or had improper labels; now, they don’t see nearly as much.
Without the donated food supply, food banks are forced to purchase goods to stock their shelves. In order to get the best prices, the Rhode Island Community Food Bank works with other food banks in New England to leverage with wholesalers. Still, purchased goods account for nearly 40 percent of food currently distributed by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. The funding for these purchases comes from charitable donations and state funding.
The upside of purchasing their own food is that the Food Bank can buy healthier goods, like rice, to distribute. Schiff said they’re also offering classes and tutorials on how to prepare healthy meals on a tight budget.
But the downside is that the Food Bank has to rely more heavily on state funding, an amount that’s been essentially halved since 2008, dropping from just under $400,000 to about $172,000. The $172,000 enables them to buy about 500,000 pounds of food, but Schiff said they’d love to see their funding increase again, since the demand for food is on the rise.
About 66,000 people are served by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s network each month, a number that mirrors the 15.5 percent (67,000) who reported food insecurity in Rhode Island. The number of people served by the Food Bank is an all-time high, up 10 percent since last year. Schiff said it’s imperative to serve everyone who seeks out the Food Bank’s assistance, even in a time when supply is low.
“They have no place else to turn to if you’ve turned them away from the Food Bank,” he said.
Even with the discouraging data in the 2012 Status Report on Hunger, Schiff has bigger things in the back of his mind, namely the new Farm Bill. The previous four-year Farm Bill expired in September, and now the Congress is looking to pass a new one. But Schiff is wary of this, since both would cut SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits to Rhode Islanders. In the House version of the bill, 30,000 Rhode Islanders would have their SNAP benefits reduced, and 12,000 would lose them altogether.
“This would happen at a time when food banks are already at capacity,” said Schiff.
Currently, 24 percent of households, or about 175,000 individuals, in Rhode Island are enrolled in the SNAP program according to the RI Department of Human Services. Enrollment in SNAP has more than doubled since 2007.
Along with SNAP, federal nutrition programs like WIC (for Women, Infants and Children), National School Lunch and breakfast and summer school food service programs provide $343 million to the local food economy.
Schiff said it’s vital that federal funding be maintained and that the state remove any additional barriers for those applying for such programs.
Visit www.rifoodbank.org to view the full 2012 Report on Hunger in Rhode Island.