Food Fighters: Rhode Island’s Battle Against Food Insecurity
Two local programs are helping low-income Rhode Islanders access fresh produce.
During the farmers market, Angela and Aurora stop at five different vendors to buy items including eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers, a single white peach that Aurora bites into on the spot, arugula, scallions, purple carrots and apples for a total value of $20. She uses the Bonus Bucks tokens to pay for everything and never once exchanges cash.
This past May on Ag Day, Rhode Island released its first ever Food Strategy. The State Room at the State House was packed with standing room only for the farmers, food producers, policymakers and chefs who attended to celebrate the strategy’s goal that “envisions a sustainable, equitable food system that is uniquely Rhode Island; one that builds on our traditions, strengths and history while encouraging innovation and supporting the regional goal of 50 percent of the food eaten in New England be produced in the region by 2060.” One of the five major integrated focus areas of the Food Strategy is to ensure food security for all Rhode Islanders.
Sue AnderBois was hired by Governor Gina Raimondo in 2016 as Rhode Island’s first director of food strategy, the only role of its kind at the state level in the United States. For the past year, she’s been reporting to the governor and working with philanthropic, government and community partners to come up with the strategic plan for the state’s burgeoning food economy. Inside her office, located at the Department of Environmental Management, a colorful sign reads, “Get shit done.” One of the strategy’s first steps for reducing food insecurity to below 10 percent by 2020 includes creating a Hunger Elimination Task Force this fall.
In 2016, nearly 12 percent of Rhode Islanders were food insecure, meaning they lacked reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. It affects approximately one out of every eight households, and for households with children, it’s closer to one out of every four.
SNAP plays a major role in Rhode Islanders’ ability to access food. “We are unsure what changes could be made by the current federal administration, so we are carefully monitoring that situation so we can appropriately react to ensure that Rhode Islanders have access to food,” says AnderBois.
The Hunger Elimination Task Force will bring together a mix of leaders across the public, private and nonprofit sectors to help solve this problem. The group will involve state department directors and community leaders representing hunger, food policy and health equity issues, as well as folks from Rhode Island’s ten Health Equity Zones, which are focus areas designed to achieve health equality by eliminating health disparities.
“The Task Force recognizes two things: One is the volume of work that’s already in progress and giving those active across the state the space to leverage each other and coordinate around an aggressive, but achievable, common goal,” says AnderBois. “We could do more to leverage resources that exist — both within the state and with federal funds.”
For such a small state, she’s encouraged by the volume of work already being done, as well as the strong interest in collaboration.
Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Bonus Bucks is just one of the valuable programs that encourage SNAP recipients to spend funds on healthy foods. Another notable program is Food on the Move, organized by the Rhode Island Public Health Institute, which brings a mobile produce market into twenty to twenty-five public and subsidized housing sites, schools, libraries and community centers within most of the state’s Health Equity Zones. The Food on the Move program allows SNAP shoppers to get 100 percent back from every purchase to spend at the mobile market.
Food on the Move grew out of the Fresh to You Market, a research program developed by Brown University researcher Dr. Kim Gans, which was found to be effective in increasing fruit and vegetable consumption for Rhode Islanders. Now the program is run by the Rhode Island Public Health Institute, led by executive director Dr. Amy Nunn, and managed by RIPHI Food Access Coordinator Eliza Dexter Cohen.
“It was created because there are big reasons why people don’t eat healthy; the barriers are cost and geographic access,” says Dr. Nunn. “There’s a misconception that people are overweight or obese because they make bad food decisions. There is food-related chronic disease in food deserts and food swamps. Eating healthy is expensive.”
Getting healthy foods to those who need them is the focus of Food on the Move. “Food security and nutritional security are different things,” she says. “You can still be food secure on peanut butter and rice. We have a more comprehensive approach.”
Dr. Nunn, who has a background in researching infectious diseases, agreed to take on the program in 2015 and conducted aggressive fundraising, including grant writing to implement the mobile market. The nutritional incentives program was officially launched in 2015 after earning a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which doubles the value of SNAP dollars for fruits and vegetables. More than nine grants equal to $2 million in funding (some distributed over three to five years) come from the USDA, AARP Foundation, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Department of Health, the Rhode Island Foundation and the Champlin Foundations.
Food on the Move mobile markets visit most sites once monthly, but there are a few locations that have a weekly stop, including ones in Pawtucket, downtown Providence and Olneyville. “It makes a huge difference in the lives of the people we serve because they otherwise wouldn’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Dr. Nunn. Markets service Rhode Island housing, with a focus on families with children and older adults, and many are open to the public. The program recently used funds from the Champlin Foundations to purchase a new retrofitted, refrigerated truck that transports the fruits and vegetables from location to location, year-round.
While most of the fruits and vegetables come from wholesalers, Dexter Cohen is working on gathering more foods from local sources including Farm Fresh RI’s Market Mobile program, the Southside Community Land Trust and individual farms.
On the first Wednesday of August, the check-out line for the once monthly Food on the Move market at Fogarty Manor in Pawtucket is already eight people deep at noontime, right to the minute when it opened. It’s the first market of the month after SNAP benefits renewed, and groups of customers arrive early to get first dibs on the freshest produce.
“In the high-rises, people plan their day around it, so we do really get a rush in the beginning,” says Dexter Cohen.
Cardboard crates of domestic fruits and vegetables from apples and oranges and broccoli to international produce like mangoes, plantains and yucca line multiple banquet tables inside the ground-floor community room at the Pawtucket Housing Authority building. One person at the end of the line gets frustrated waiting while the market staff struggles with the point of sales system temporarily going down. The woman mutters under her breath, puts down her bag of produce and walks away.
Others patiently wait their turns with carts full of goods, and arms holding plastic bags filled with bright fresh fruits and veggies. Many of the shoppers are elderly residents of the housing complex. One woman has to sit down at a table and have someone save her spot in line, as she cannot stand for long periods of time. Another shopper is a certified nursing assistant gathering produce for clients who cannot come down and shop on their own due to disabilities.
Some shoppers pay with cash or credit, while most use SNAP EBT cards. After SNAP purchases are finalized, customers are given an additional card with Rhody Bucks on it, equal to 100 percent of the value they just spent to use toward a future purchase at any Food on the Move market. Last year, Food on the Move sold $101,455 worth of produce including $17,150 in SNAP and $24,753.66 in redeemed Rhody Bucks.
Sales at the markets are highest when SNAP benefits renew, but by the end of the month, shoppers run out of funds. “The end is really tough, both on our end and the consumer end,” says Dexter Cohen. “We hear people saying, I am eating mostly dry goods and not produce at the end of the month. They are utilizing pantries more often.”
While Dexter Cohen is welcoming customers and answering questions, a woman asks, “Do you need help?” She stops shopping for produce for a moment, and walks toward the coordinator.
“Could I join your team? I am looking for a job,” she says.
Dexter Cohen turns her head to the woman and smiles. “We just hired a few people, including employee Taylor, but we are always taking rolling applications,” she says. “If you want, I can give you my card and if you have a resume….”
“I have one right here,” she says, and presents a resume that describes her job history.
The woman, Shawn McConnell, lives in Pawtucket and walked to the Food on the Move market. She doesn’t have a car and she also frequents the Slater Park farmers market, which accepts SNAP and WIC. McConnell explains that she’s out of work due to a need to spend more time with her four-year-old son who is having difficulty in school, and the eight- to ten-hour days she was working, plus a commute to East Greenwich, had been taking a toll on them.
McConnell says she usually brings her son to the farmers markets and lets him choose produce he wants to eat. “Everyone is impressed with how he eats. He’ll eat a whole plate of fruit and vegetables, carrots and raw broccoli,” she says. “But it changes every day. One day he loves it, and the next day he says, I can’t stand that stuff.”
McConnell gathers her purchases at the checkout counter, including two cucumbers, an avocado, yams, red cabbage, plums, nectarines and Pink Lady apples.
“$19.68,” says Keiser Castillo, Food on the Move’s operations coordinator.
McConnell presents her SNAP card.
“And you get it all back,” he says, presenting her with a gift card that has $19.68 on it for use at a future Food on the Move market.
“I get it all back?” she says, stuffing it into her wallet. “Even better.”
Food on the Move and Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Fresh Bucks and Bonus Bucks have had a lot of success helping people with low access eat healthier foods at more affordable prices, but there’s so much more that can be done, says Dexter Cohen.
“We have a couple different pilots right now that will transition our system to be a 50 percent discount to simplify the system, so people can use it right away and not have to keep track of another gift card,” she says.
The program has also been working on sourcing more local fruits and vegetables from area farms for the market by ordering from Farm Fresh RI’s Market Mobile. “We have local produce, but it depends on what the farmers have to work with,” she says. “One of the gaps in the Rhode Island food system is, overall, there’s a very strong direct to retail market (the strongest in the nation) and they can get the full market value, which is great, but for affordable produce, we often look for when farmers have a glut and can sell for wholesale prices.”
Food on the Move also works with the Southside Community Land Trust and independent farms to gather locally grown vegetables from Latino, South Asian and West African growers to satisfy the needs of the many international shoppers who come to the markets.
The main goals for both Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Bonus Bucks and Food on the Move are to improve health and nutritional security. But the ideas could have a much broader impact.
“RIPHI only takes on things that have local and national level implications,” says Dr. Nunn. “What we really have our eye on as an end goal is to figure out how to get this into retail.”
As part of Rhode Island’s Food Strategy, both groups are working with AnderBois to determine what that could look like. “We want to work with Sue to identify retailers that might be willing to pilot this project,” says Dr. Nunn. “My long time vision and goal would be — what if Walmart, which is the biggest retailer of organic produce in the country, what if they were advocating a program in Congress that doubles the value of SNAP dollars for fresh fruits and vegetables? If they could do well by doing good.”
“That would be the holy grail of public health impact, to use our SNAP dollars to promote healthy eating,” Dr. Nunn says.
Farm Fresh RI is already starting to translate Bonus Bucks into retail. In July, it opened the Harvest Kitchen Healthy Corner Store and Cafe on the Pawtucket and Central Falls line, which sells local farm produce, New England products and grab-and-go items that are all SNAP eligible, year-round. “It’s like a farmers market six days a week,” says Harvest Kitchen program director and chef Jen Stott. She works with youth from the Juvenile Corrections Services to staff the store and run the food-industry training program that creates a line of preserved foods using local farm produce. The Healthy Corner Store and Cafe will be the first retail location in the state to award SNAP recipients with Bonus Bucks toward the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables, but incentives for healthy eating are also offered to all shoppers.
Throughout 2018, Harvest Kitchen will also pilot its concept of providing locally grown fruits and vegetables and healthy grab-and-go snacks at other corner stores throughout the state, too. They’ve worked with the Department of Health to identify three interested retail locations located in Health Equity Zones to distribute healthy options to Rhode Island residents through those sites.
“We’ll collect data from here on what sells, what doesn’t, what people prefer to purchase when they are shopping in a healthy corner store,” says Stott. “Maybe it’s a collaboration with a bodega or corner store, or maybe it’s a popup farmers market. Maybe we’ll put in a little refrigerator in these stores and fill it with products we make.”
Imagine if Rhode Islanders could pick up locally grown fruits and veggies, a bag of Harvest Kitchen apple chips or a jar of Rhode Island-sourced pickles instead of a candy bar or potato chips at corner stores in low-income neighborhoods. The future looks bright, fresh and healthy.