Rhode Island Is Still Going Hungry
How is the state working to address the problem?
Illustration by Heidi Younger
If ever a community was food insecure, it was Plimoth Plantation. They settled on the shores of Cape Cod Bay with a goal of religious and economic liberty, but few survival skills. And, but for the intervention of a friendly Wampanoag Indian, Squanto, who taught them how to plant corn and squash — so goes our national myth — they would have died of starvation.
Historians debate the real origins of Thanksgiving. But, whether it started as celebration of free enterprise or of the genocide of the Pequot tribe or of the colonists’ first successful harvest, it has become our national monument to food security.
So, come November, the stores of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank are never greater. The banks, the scouts, the schools and the houses of worship collect truckloads of boxed stuffing, canned corn and turkeys for the Providence-based nonprofit. In one month, the Food Bank collects 1.2 million pounds of food — double any other month on the calendar.
But it is not enough.
“Even as the economy has been improving, we have not seen big decreases in the number of people coming for help,” says Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff. “It’s a sign that for people on the lower rungs, things haven’t gotten much better. The unemployment rate has gone down, people are getting jobs, but they are low-wage jobs that don’t cover their bills. They can’t afford food.”
In 2007, the Food Bank served 37,000 people each month. In 2012, at the peak of need, it fed 69,000 people per month. In 2015, the number of recipients dropped to 59,000 — where it has stayed.
The Food Bank’s distribution numbers mirror the nation’s annual snapshot of food insecurity. The United States Department of Agriculture’s latest study, released in September, found that the percentage of American households with food insecurity in 2015 dropped from a high in 2011 of 14.9 percent to 12.7 percent, with about 5 percent experiencing very low food security. In Rhode Island, 11.8 percent experienced low or very low food security, also a drop from the 2009 to 2011 average.
Food pantries, like the one operated by the Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale, are only seeing the demand rise. The pantry receives most of its food from the Food Bank, supplemented by local food drives and individual donors. It also directly purchases 37 percent of its food. Last year, the Jonnycake Center spent $100,000 stocking its shelves, and the center expects to spend more this year.
“The numbers here have skyrocketed,” says executive director Kate Brewster. “We have seen twice as many new people in the first six months of 2016 as we did in the first six months of 2015. We’ve also seen a 35 percent increase in our school vacation meals program. We have seniors who have difficulty living on a fixed income, people on disability and a lot of working households and seasonal workers whose jobs don’t pay enough.”
Most food assistance comes from the federal government, which first offered blue and orange food stamps to people on relief in 1939. The program was shuttered four years later, but President John F. Kennedy revived it as a pilot program. In the 1970s, it became permanent. Over the next three and a half decades, the program expanded and contracted, buffeted by political and economic forces. In 2008, at the beginning of the Great Recession, it was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In May 2016, 43.4 million Americans participated in the program, receiving an average benefit of $125 a month. The SNAP budget in Rhode Island is $280 million — compared to the $7 million budget of the Food Bank.
But it is not enough.
The state has launched several initiatives to identify strategies and policies to diminish food insecurity. Five years ago, state government, food industry and health care organizations coalesced as the Rhode Island Food Policy Council to examine policies affecting the state’s food acquisition and distribution system.
Council chairman Kenneth F. Payne says that wiping out hunger is a moral and economic imperative. Hungry children don’t perform well in school and hungry adults don’t make good workers.
“Scarcity takes up mental bandwidth,” Payne says.“When people are worried about how to get adequate food today, they don’t necessarily think about things that would improve their condition for the long term. If we are going to have economic improvement in Rhode Island, we need to decrease food insecurity.”
In 2015, the state Department of Health, in partnership with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), launched a pilot program to designate different geographic areas in the state “health equity zones.” Eleven local governments and nonprofits were granted $2.15 million in CDC funding to create initiatives in communities struggling with obesity, chronic illness and other health-related problems. Access to local, nutritious food is among the projects in several of these zones.
In May, Governor Gina Raimondo appointed Sue AnderBois as the state’s first director of food strategy to devise a plan to maximize Rhode Island’s food system. She is exploring the potential of urban gardening, and linking low-income immigrant communities to the state’s fishermen as routes to better access to healthy food. She says that she expects to complete her assessment next spring, which will examine “what pieces are missing and what the state and others can do to fill in those gaps and super-charge what we are already doing.”
In September, the Department of Human Services (DHS) launched a new computer system linking health care, SNAP, cash assistance and child care benefits. The first significant upgrade to the department’s technology in more than thirty years, the new integrated eligibility system promises to speed up the approval process and give clients online access to their accounts.
“Fundamentally, it’s about better customer service,” says the state’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Elizabeth Roberts. “This integrated system will connect people more efficiently to what people need. It’s better for the client and it’s better for the state.”
Between 2009 and 2013, DHS was not adequately staffed to manage the onslaught of applicants, and the federal government penalized the state $411,840 for failing to keep the SNAP error rate below a threshold of 6 percent. More recently, the department won $1.2 million in bonuses and a forgiven penalty for improving access and payment accuracy. Its error rate dropped from 8.3 percent in 2013 to 3.9 percent in 2015.
The state is also embarking on an experiment, in conjunction with economist Justine Hastings, director of the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab at Brown University, to see if splitting the monthly SNAP benefit into biweekly payments helps recipients make it to the end of the month.
Advocates are, to put it kindly, skeptical.
“It’s a terrible idea,” says Kathleen Gorman, director of the URI Feinstein Center for a Hunger Free America. “People’s shopping habits aren’t the cause of food insecurity. It’s pretty well established that the benefits are not enough for people to last a month. There’s a lot of research showing that low-income people are very smart shoppers.”
Further, many SNAP recipients don’t own cars, and plan their errands around the availability of rides. Splitting the SNAP benefit will saddle them with an additional transportation burden.
Since the 1980s, there’s been this idea of “some woman driving around in a pink Cadillac buying steak and lobster on food stamps,” Gorman says. “That woman doesn’t exist. It’s a diversion from the real problem.”
SNAP is once again contracting due in part to fewer in families in need, but also because the Republican-controlled Congress has been slashing the program. In 2014, Congress cut $8.7 billion from SNAP and, this spring, the House sought another $23 billion in cuts.
United States Representative David Cicilline, who has sponsored a comprehensive anti-poverty bill that would restore SNAP benefits, says, “We continue to make appeals to our Republican colleagues. [Cutting SNAP] is not just cruel and immoral, it has a negative impact on the well-being of our country.”
As we pat our aching stomachs in celebration of our own food security, consider this: The Food Bank’s November bounty is depleted faster than it is gathered.
“We’re responding to the emergency with a couple of grocery bags of food. It’s a charitable network — it can only carry so much capacity and we are at capacity,” Schiff says.