Bob Jaffe is like beef jerky: long, narrow, unknown age, skin like dry leather. Yet he's playing Bobby, a seven-year-old boy whose mother relies on donations from the neighborhood food pantry to get dinner on the table. Jaffe's shoulders have softened into those of a child, one who's unused to having cookies at snack time. When he receives a goodie bag containing a little pack of Oreos, Bobby starts to bubble at the extravagance. He plans to save the cookies and show them off to his taunting classmates. But Bobby is hungry, and two minutes later there are no more Oreos.
Bills, bills, bills
Written by Rhode Island playwright David Eliet and sponsored by the RI Community Food Bank, But For The Grace...Voices of Hunger in Rhode Island is a one-man show that ran for two days in February at Rites and Reason Theatre. Jaffe's melancholy portrayal of a famished seven-year-old scarfing down cookies underscores how undiscriminating the claw of local hunger can be. One-third of families receiving food from the RI Community Food Bank have children. Last year, 11.3 percent of the state's households (about 48,000) were described as "food insecure," up from four years ago. This term refers to households that are "on the brink of persistent hunger," that might "cut meal sizes, skip meals or run out of food during financial constraints," according to the RI Community Food Bank's 2007 Status Report.
In this state, the majority of food pantries, soup kitchens and after-school meal programs are stocked by the Food Bank, which acts as a "hub distributor," as Public Relations Manager Michael Cerio described to the Independent. Last year, the Food Bank trucked over 7 million pounds of food to local agencies, which in turn provided more than 8 million meals to households around the state.
But For The Grace... features multiple characters besides Bobby. They are largely taxpayers, homeowners and full-time workers. But when the average cost of family health insurance is equal to the average income of a family earning Rhode Island's minimum wage, affording food can become impossible, even for those with jobs. According to the Food Bank, 32 percent of food recipients in 2007 had to choose between paying for food or medical care, while 46 percent had to choose between food and utilities. For these families, the monthly box of food is indispensable.
The American way
In November of last year, The New York Times ran a story on critical food shortages at food banks around the country. In New England, spokespersons for food banks like the Greater Boston Food Bank, the Vermont Food Bank and the New Hampshire Food Bank confirmed that the trend was experienced regionally.
The article cited experts attributing shortages to rising demand for emergency food; some blamed the price of energy and the toll taken by foreclosures, which have tightened the financial noose around many families' budgets. This, combined with a sharp drop in the federal supply of excess farm goods and a tightened inventory control by supermarkets and other food retailers, has caused demand to far exceed supply.
Notably, the US Agriculture Department's Bonus Commodity Program buys surplus crops from farmers and donates them to food agencies, but supplies from this program have dwindled. In 2006, donations were worth $67 million, compared with $154 million in 2005 and $233 million in 2004. Since 2002, emergency aid for food banks has stalled at $140 million, despite the growing demand nationwide.
The November coverage of the shortage of groceries and produce to Food Banks may have reminded politicians and the public about hungry Americans. But since the new year, the national media have stopped covering the nation's hungry. And the shortage continues.
Bank on it
Cerio confirmed a decline in the quantity of food that mirrors the national trend. He attributed this to fewer salvage donations, food donated from grocery stores that is either surplus or cosmetically damaged. In response to economic pressures that favor discount chains like Walmart, more local grocery stores and food retailers have tightened their inventory control, limiting the surplus that can be donated.
Of course, there is a tradeoff between grocery store efficiency and Food Bank benefit. If a store donates a lot because it has a lot of surplus, the Food Bank will receive a sizable amount of food immediately, but the store may not be able to compete with the mega-retailers in the long run. The better a grocery store manages, the longer it can sustain itself, and the more donations the Food Bank will receive over time. "We rely so much on community support and donations in the food industry," Cerio told the Independent. "We don't want to portray them as not being generous."
The Food Bank receives 27 percent of its food as retail donations, including from local salvage, according to Cerio. Seven to eight percent comes from food drives and individual donations--a lot, considering that last year the Food Bank distributed seven million pounds of food. The rest is purchased at low cost by the Food Bank from money it raises from individual, state and federal donations. Last year, the RI General Assembly provided $384,041 in grant funding.
"Fortunately, we have very strong community support," said Cerio. "We have a strong reputation and people continue to give as much as they can. At the same time, we're growing in distribution every year."
The Food Bank has dealt with the decline in salvage donations by purchasing more food in the past two and a half years, and the agency handles more perishable food (bakery items, fresh produce) than it once did. Cerio said this was a common response in food banks across the country. But while it would make a nutritionist glad to see apples replacing the food pantry canned staples like Spaghetti-O's, the increased volume of fresh food has made distribution more difficult.
The Food Bank has solved the problem with Neighborhood Pantry Express, a program that distributes perishable items to clients of local pantries the day after canned and boxed food is dropped off. "Food pantries are often grassroots, small and in places of faith that might not have a refrigerator or a cooler," Cerio explained. "So they distribute on their normal day of distribution, say Tuesday, and then the next day we'll bring one of our trucks and set up a farmers' market in the parking lot." The program removes the burden of distributing produce from the food agencies, while still making fresh food accessible to individuals.
Garden of eatin'
The amount of fresh produce available to Rhode Island's hungry may, however, also become scarcer. While the number of residents requiring food assistance still grows, the amount of farmland throughout Rhode Island has shrunk, bought out by developers.
But the Food Bank has committed itself to building a more sustainable food culture for poor families in the state. The Rhode Island Community Farm is a program run by the Food Bank that has been in operation since 2001. It, like Neighborhood Pantry Express, has boosted the amount of fresh food available to hungry Rhode Islanders, while simultaneously preserving local farmland.
The Community Farm currently occupies eight plots of land throughout Rhode Island, some as small as three-quarters of an acre. Teams of volunteers set up and maintain these plots as farms, where crops are grown to supplement the purchased produce. All of what is grown is donated, distributed through Neighborhood Pantry Express. Last year, all the farms combined produced 25,000 pounds of homegrown produce, according to Cerio.
As the growing season approaches, these farms will soon be busy again. Unlike the percentage of the Food Bank's supply that must rely on market forces to determine how much food gets donated this year, the Community Farm harvest is, happily, likely to increase.
Oh! But she was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, KATIE OKAMOTO B'09!