On Oct. 11, the Rhode Island Community Food Bank released its 2023 Rhode Island Hunger Survey. Commissioned every four years, the survey found that the majority of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients in Rhode Island cannot make their monthly benefits for longer than two weeks and that demand for food banks has skyrocketed since 2019.
Through SNAP, Rhode Islanders receive monthly electronic benefit transfers that they can use to buy food at grocery stores, supermarkets and farmers markets.
Michelle Rogers, assistant professor of behavioral and social sciences in the School of Public Health, helped organize the study. In an email to The Herald, she wrote that the report is a random sample of 65 food pantries and food sites affiliated with the Rhode Island Food Bank.
A team of trained food bank volunteers and SPH Survey Research Center staff conducted face-to-face interviews with clients visiting the food assistance sites between April and June 2023.
According to the 2019 survey, an average of 53,000 people sought food assistance in Rhode Island each month. In 2023, that number has jumped to 75,000.
The 2023 survey found that nearly 80 percent of the food assistance population had incomes below the federal poverty level, or an annual household income of $30,000 for a family of four. This figure jumps to 90% when households with children are taken into account.
David Bano, president and CEO of the Community Action Partnership of Providence County, said the federal poverty level may not be representative of all those seeking food assistance in Rhode Island.
“People look at this study and say, ‘Oh yeah, of course these people who are super (impoverished) are using the food bank,'” he said. “But you don’t understand that your neighbors … also come to our food banks.”
CAPP provides services and support programs to Providence County residents to help them achieve economic self-sufficiency, according to the organization’s website. The nonprofit organization operates one of the largest food banks in Providence County.
Bano said that since last spring, CAPP’s food pantry has seen a modest increase in the number of families it serves each week. This increase occurred after additional SNAP benefits from the COVID-19 pandemic ended in the spring.
In March, the federal government ended distribution of supplemental SNAP benefits that began as a pandemic measure in March 2020.
A month after the increased SNAP benefits ended, the RI Community Food Bank reported a 25 percent jump in visits to member food pantries, said Lisa Roth Blackman, the organization’s chief philanthropy officer. While extended benefits were relatively new, “people got used to it and I think (they) relied on those funds to make ends meet in their household.”
Despite widespread use of food assistance services, assistance continues to fall short for SNAP recipients. According to the Hunger Survey, Rhode Island households enrolled in SNAP receive an average of just $315 per month, or $78.75 per week. The 2023 study estimated that 70 percent of families exhaust these benefits within two weeks. In 2019, this figure was 49%.
Blackman cited rising food prices, which have outpaced general inflation over the past year, as a major factor in the fight to preserve SNAP benefits. The survey results also show that almost a quarter of the families surveyed live in temporary housing, such as a shelter or campsite, or have no housing at all.
“Parents will say, well, I’ll skip a meal if I have to to make sure I can pay the rent and my kids will eat,” Blackman said. “Food is fungible in that way, but housing is not so fungible, so food is what can be cut if they’re trying to make sure they keep a roof over their heads.”
But while inflation is an easy answer, the real culprit behind rising food costs is “corporate greed,” Bano said.
“Corporations know they can charge more because it’s accepted to charge more, and the government is doing nothing about it,” he said.
John Shea, a Rhode Island resident and currently unhoused veteran, said rising food costs and declining SNAP funding have put him in “survival mode.” He now receives $66 a month in SNAP benefits, he said.
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“I couldn’t live with this for two weeks, never mind a month. So it’s a mess,” Shea said.
In addition to problems with insufficient food aid, the products offered at food banks are not always suitable for those in need, Shea said. He used to visit food pantries regularly to pick up staples like milk, orange juice and eggs, but recently stopped going because he felt the food options had become more limited and, he said, less nutritious.
Food pantries also “gave away things that were not edible for some people who live on the street,” Shay added. “You can’t reheat dinners and things like that when you’re living on the streets.”
Food insecurity in Rhode Island intersects with issues like housing and health, according to the study. Almost half of respondents rated their health as good or poor, and food insecure respondents had higher rates of chronic disease than the national average.
Chronic medical conditions of food assistance recipients can complicate the types of foods they can consume. To address that problem, Blackman said the RI Food Bank has increased the amount of produce it gives out to families because the produce tends to be lower in sodium, carbohydrates and other nutrients that may be needed to be avoided in chronic diseases.
Food insecurity is also related to race. 12 percent of survey respondents were black and 33 percent were Hispanic, while the state of Rhode Island was 6 percent black and 18 percent Hispanic, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Bano said he was most troubled by the racial statistics revealed by the study: “Our system is completely skewed,” he said.
Yael is a senior staff writer covering city and state politics. She is a junior and is from the Bay Area.