The Rhode Island Community Food Bank released its Status Report on Hunger in Rhode Island during a Monday morning press conference at its headquarters, announcing that low-income residents miss an average of 11.3 million meals per year.
Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff led off the event next to a pie chart showing how low-income Rhode Islanders obtain meals. The most common source – 43 percent – is through the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits. Twenty-nine percent of meals are purchased with cash, while the Food Bank and school lunches account for 10 percent each. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, accounts for 2 percent.
That leaves a 6 percent slice of the pie that goes missing every year, which Schiff said equals out to 11.3 million meals. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who also spoke at the press conference, was quick to note that figure would be larger without the Food Bank.
“This chart makes two points: One is that the main source of meals for low-income Rhode Islanders are the federal nutrition programs, and also that – even with the federal nutrition programs and all of the help that people receive from charitable programs through the Food Bank – low-income Rhode Islanders are still missing millions of meals,” Schiff said.
Schiff said the Food Bank, with help from the Brown University Hassenfeld Child Health Innovation Institute, was able to survey those who were seeking help from food pantries and meal programs. He said they learned that those in line were predominantly either parents with young children or senior adults.
He also said the folks served by the Food Bank suffered from “seriously compromised health,” including reports of high levels of diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. He noted that researchers at the Center for Disease Control found that healthcare costs associated with what Schiff called “food insecurity” total $160 million in the Ocean State alone.
“Children and senior adults are our most vulnerable citizens, and the ones who are most harmed by hunger,” Schiff said. “The senior adults that we serve have low fixed incomes and can’t afford basic household expenses, including food. The families with children that we serve are headed by working parents who aren’t earning enough to be able to provide families with the food they need.”
Schiff, as well as Whitehouse and Sen. Jack Reed, warned that SNAP benefits could be in danger for thousands of Rhode Islanders. Schiff said that President Donald Trump’s administration “is moving in exactly the opposite direction” of trying to close the meal gap.
He said the administration has put forth three proposals to cut SNAP benefits in the past year, adding that if just one of them went through, 11,000 of the 148,000 Rhode Islanders enrolled would lose their SNAP benefits. About half of those affected would be children.
The administration is taking steps to curtail, not expand, access to nutritious food for Americans,” Reed said, noting his and Whitehouse’s continued support for programs like SNAP and WIC. “As an Appropriations [Committee] member, I work closely to make sure these programs were fully funded, but as Andrew again pointed out, the administration by rule is attempting to cut back on critical programs, particularly the SNAP program.”
Reed said the hunger report provided a “stark reminder of the challenges that face us today,” noting that the 53,000 households served every month by the Food Bank is 6,000 more than a decade ago.
“This not just an issue of morality and decency…this is dollars and cents,” Reed said. “Pay now or pay later, and when you pay later, it will be much greater. It will be children who have severe problems as they grow into their adolescence and beyond. So we should now make the investment in good nutrition for all of our citizens, and if we do that we’ll live up to not only the great aspirations of this nation but we’ll be doing the right thing and the smart thing together.”
Schiff, shortly before introducing Whitehouse, said the Trump administration is seeking to “undermine” the Farm Bill passed last year, which preserved SNAP benefits. Whitehouse went a step further, saying that the Food Bank’s efforts to ameliorate hunger in Rhode Island should be answered at the federal level.
“We have turned this country upside down with subsidies for the rich, while these efforts are being overtaken to take away food from poor families,” Whitehouse said. “We have a lot of work to do to solve that political problem…We need to redouble our attention to fixing the rules of this administration, fixing the function of government so that it is no longer upside down and it serves the people who need it.”
State WIC Director Ann Barone said she and her department are looking to invite people back to the program, a process that includes streamlining follow-up meetings and the rollout of a pilot E-WIC initiative beginning on Jan. 22, 2020.
“The question is, why do people drop off the program? Well, when you go into a WIC-approved store, and you get your groceries you have these paper checks that you have to separate out from your regular groceries so every WIC check is a transaction in the store, which for a family is very embarrassing,” Barone said. “You're standing in a line – think about this week, when the grocery stores are going to be busy, busy, busy and someone is in front of you with four transactions that they have to make.”
Barone said the pilot program will begin in the East Bay with areas like Newport, Tiverton and East Providence. She hopes to have the entire state ready for E-WIC by the middle of next year. The department will issue cards with the Rhode Island lighthouse and no names, just a PIN number.
Barone also said people shouldn't panic if they misplace their card. A new card can be issued, unlike WIC checks, which she said cannot be replaced because of tracking protocols.
“With E-WIC, you’ll be able to buy what you need the day you go buy. Put all of your groceries on the conveyor belt, have them all go through at once, you swipe your E-WIC card, you swipe your SNAP card, you pay cash and it all looks seamless to everyone around,” Barone said. “There is no blinking of the lights from the cashiers or anything that would embarrass a client or a family or cause any eye rolls in the aisles or anything like that.”