THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Making Ends Meet

Food Insecurity in Rhode Island

by Kshitij Sachan, John Graves & Nell Salzman

Illustration by Natasha Brennan

published November 15, 2019


 

Rows of shelves, stretching from the floor to the high ceiling, hold hundreds of pallets of everything from canned beans to boxes of pasta. Workers operate heavy lifts, shuttling overflowing crates from one shelf to the next. The Rhode Island Community Food Bank is located in south Providence in a large building, that was once the home of the Bro Jacks grocery store. In total, the Food Bank facilities contain 77,000 square feet of floor space, and 54 employees to go along with the 80,000 volunteer hours each year. All of these resources makes food assistance possible across the state.

54,200 households in Rhode Island are food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal will come from. There is no easy solution to this problem, due to the fact that food insecurity is caused by deep systemic issues of poverty and unemployment. The impacts of food insecurity are disproportionately felt by Latinx and Black Rhode Islanders, who are two times more likely to use food pantries than white Rhode Islanders. And the problem of food insecurity in Rhode Island is not getting better—in fact, there are reasons to believe it could get worse.

The Rhode Island Food Bank is trying to find new food sources to meet the demands of the state. “There is what’s called a meal gap,” Samuel Howard, the Food Bank’s communications coordinator, told the College Hill Independent. “The gap has shrunk over the years that I’ve worked here, but it’s still there.” While progress has been made, there is a risk that the gap could expand in the near future due to lack of affordable housing, federal cuts to welfare programs, inflation of food prices, and less food waste from grocery stores for the Food Bank to distribute.

The Food Bank does all that it can to fill the gap between the food people need and the food they have access to, working with 168 food pantries and meal sites throughout the state to feed those in need. It collects food from larger companies, supermarkets, local community farms, and food drives before processing it at a central warehouse. Fleets of trucks then ship out the food to whichever pantries need it the most, including the West End, Better Lives, and Good Neighbors food pantries. Churches, community centers, and schools serve as food pantries where people pick up their food for the month. Although the Food Bank distributes food to over 50,000 people each year, 63 percent of food pantry visitors still feel they lack the funds to cover their food needs, even after assistance from federal funding and food pantries.

Food pantries are doing all they can to provide as many resources as possible to those that need them, even beyond food. They are integral parts of the community that empower those who need their services. They provide social welfare programs like housing assistance, applications for citizenship status, and legal advice. As opposed to the short-term solution that food pantry assistance provides, these are long-term solutions to food insecurity and poverty more broadly. The core of their mission is to make sure that those who need food feel comfortable using the services. They do this through programs that destigmatize the need for food assistance.

 

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Better Lives of Rhode Island food pantry highlights the reasons that the meal gap is at risk of increasing. Set in the basement of Sanctuary Church, Better Lives has operated since 1974 and has grown to provide food to over 4,000 people a month, becoming the most visited pantry in the state. On Mondays, the busiest day of the week, 50 people sit in rows of plastic chairs that have been set up to face tables loaded with food, waiting to be called by their number.

Food insecurity  stems in part from the crisis of affordable housing in Rhode Island, and many visitors to Better Lives experience this first-hand. Currently, more than half of all Rhode Island renters are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing, which has increased in price by 38% over the past fifteen years in Rhode Island. As housing prices climb, the demand for pantry services increases even further. Rhode Island’s minimum wage ($10.50 per hour) is not enough for many people to be able to buy food after paying rent.

Further, many of the patrons at Better Lives are aware of proposals to cut federal welfare programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). These proposed cuts would worsen the crisis of food insecurity by forcing 12 percent of the state’s recipients off the program. Even before the proposed cuts go into effect, current SNAP benefits only cover about half the cost of a healthy diet for a family of four in Rhode Island. “Folks get their SNAP benefits on the 1st, and by the 15th people start to run out,” said Samuel Howard, the communications coordinator for the RI Food Bank. “Pantries will start to see a lot more people after the 15th.” Further exacerbating the issue, the price of food has increased faster than wages in Rhode Island. From 2016 to 2018, the price of food has increased by 15%, but wages have only increased by 5%. As a result, SNAP recipients can’t purchase as much food on SNAP.

Robert Perry picks up food from Better Lives every two weeks. Since serving in the military, Perry has been in and out of jail, volunteering at the pantry for the last 6 years. Perry, like many, is on SSI (Social Security Income) and SNAP benefits, but he uses the pantry to get odds and ends that he couldn’t afford on SNAP like cuts of meat and fruit. However, if inflation in food prices continues, and the government moves forward with cuts to SNAP, Perry might become reliant on the pantry on a regular basis.

Pantries such as Better Lives are also finding it harder to meet the demand for food. Traditionally, nearly half the food distributed by the Food Bank comes from the food industry, with grocery stores and other businesses donating food that otherwise would have gone to waste. This method is becoming less reliable, though.

“Grocery stores are becoming more efficient, as places like Stop and Shop, and other retailers track everything you buy,” Howard explains. “This means there is less guesswork and less food waste, but also less food for us to pick up.” In addition, community support has started to regress. “As the economy recovers, there’s the viewpoint from the community that there’s less need for our services, which leads to a decrease in donations. And that doesn’t really match with reality.” All of these factors could lead to a growing meal gap, which would only worsen the food insecurity crisis in Rhode Island.

 

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Although there is a high priority on getting more food to pantries, there is also a focus on ensuring that food pantries are welcoming places that people feel comfortable going to for assistance. The West End Community Center takes particular pride in its welcoming atmosphere. Open since 1975, West End is an unassuming building located a few miles south of Better Lives. The entrance looks like a pediatrician’s office, with colorful floor tiles and cream-colored walls. There is a large multipurpose room on the left, which has small plastic chairs and school tables. At the end of the hallway, nestled away in the corner of this building, is the food pantry. It’s small, no bigger than the size of a bedroom.

This pantry provides food to 10 to 15 families per day. Jacky Song, one of the workers who restocks the shelves, smiles at people as they come in and ask for food. Song grew up in the West End, and went to the middle school across the street. Song’s mom picked up food here when he was a child.

Throughout the day, Song provides at least three meals worth of food to families. Anyone with a membership card, which provides proof of low-income status, can come in and get food once a month. While the food pantry never runs out of food, Song wishes they could give more to people who come by. A large delivery from the Food Bank comes twice a month to restock the shelves.

In order to create an inclusive atmosphere, West End also meets other needs of its visitors beyond food assistance. It serves as a daycare, assists in finding housing, and delivers food directly to households. It even helps undocumented immigrants file for citizenship and collects forms such as birth certificates for those that have misplaced them. Many food pantries have similar programs.

Denise Greene, director of the West End, oversees the food pantry as well as its other social service programs. She networks with different organizations in Rhode Island to make the food pantry a one-stop shop for everyone. People can now come in and pick up diapers, clothes, shampoo, soap, laundry detergent, bleach, toothpaste, tooth brushes, and paper towels in addition to food. “How about the treat of a roll of paper towels?" Greene asks. "When you are poor, you don’t buy paper towels. But everybody wants paper towels!”

The pantry is trying to expand the population they serve. They’ve started purchasing more canned spaghetti and ravioli for the large homeless population that can’t take home a box of pasta to cook. For children, they now give away decorated kid boxes—a healtheir equivalent of a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Greene says that children now don’t have to feel ashamed when their families ask for food because they’re excited to open their boxes. “I can send them home on Friday and know that they’re eating all weekend,” Greene boasts proudly.

Greene’s biggest goal is to destigmatize food insecurity and get people excited to come to the food pantry. That starts with getting tastier, higher-quality food. “When you give away cheap food, people know. We’re not picking up ham anymore, we’re picking up center-cut boneless pork chops,” Greene says. The pantry is also starting to offer delicious snacks such as Entenmann’s donuts—indulgences that low-income families might not be able to otherwise afford on SNAP benefits. Most food pantries provide staples such as beans, rice, and frozen turkey. West End, according to Greene, is focused on not only providing food, but also on making sure that people enjoy it.

 

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Diana Burdett, the director of Better Lives, has been working there since 2003, when it was a much smaller organization. “This job is just making my hair turn white,” she says.

In addition to managing the largest food pantry in the state, Burdett puts aside time to manage cases for low-income individuals. She helps them find housing, file for citizenship status, and get legal representation. “You can’t choose what family you’re born into. You just sort of take what you can get. So we try to be their support system. We are their support system, when they don’t have one,” Burdett says.

The RI Food Bank provides the necessary resources for the people like those that Diana works with every day but acknowledges that there are bigger societal problems that are beyond the scope of their assistance. “We know that no one is ever just hungry. Hunger is a sign of scarcity and hardship. We want to find innovative ways to address the multiple problems faced by food insecure families and create a gateway to other services that will increase self-sufficiency.”

The Food Bank is a safety net for people who face food insecurity each year. Without it, thousands would go hungry. For this reason, it is important for organizations to recognize its impact and help support it.

 

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Student groups at Brown University have taken some steps to address the issue of food insecurity. The Food Recovery Network works with dining halls and local businesses around campus to collect excess food that otherwise would have been discarded. The food is then donated to homeless shelters and meal sites around Providence. While these efforts are a step in the right direction, Brown’s administration has the potential to make a much larger difference. As a non-profit, Brown is not required to pay taxes to the city. Brown opts to pay $6.7 million to the city of Providence, which is less than half of what it would otherwise be required to pay in taxes. Given its large endowment and ample resources, Brown can do more.

At the end of every year, many Brown students on the full-meal plan often have extra points and meal credits, leading to food waste as students spend in excess to not waste points. HOPE (Homeless Opportunities for People Everywhere), a student organization on campus, tries to take advantage of these left-over resources by allowing students to donate small food items like granola bars to local people in need. However, students can only spend two meal credits an hour, which makes this an inefficient use of time and resources. A more organized system would help solve these issues on a larger scale.

Swipe Out Hunger, a non-profit which has helped implement swipe donation at 85 colleges across the country, provides an example of a more organized way to tackle food insecurity. A typical Swipe Out Hunger program allows students to go into any dining hall on campus and donate a set number of unused swipes to a swipe bank.

There are some schools that have partnered with Swipe Out Hunger to donate the monetary value of meal swipes to organizations beyond their campus. Both Pepperdine University and the College of William and Mary have partnered with Swipe Out Hunger to give half of their donated funds to organizations working to support those facing homelessness and poverty, with Pepperdine raising over $5,000 in 2018. Other colleges such as Emory University and Carleton College use the same catering company as Brown, Bon Appetit Dining Services, and have already partnered with Swipe Out Hunger. This means the process of setting up a donation program is even easier than ever.

Most of the current Swipe Out Hunger programs have a cap to limit the number of swipes students can donate per semester, which lowers the cost for the university. Pilot programs tested at five colleges in the last academic year allowed students to donate anywhere from one to five meal swipes per semester, with a plan to raise that cap in the future. This resulted in anywhere from 400 to 4,000 swipes donated per year at a single college.

There are multiple reasons to believe that Brown’s dining revenue will increase this year. For the past few years, the price of meal plan has been steadily increasing. This year, the price increased by $400 to $5,912. Additionally, as a result of the policy requiring sophomores to be on meal plan, more students than ever before are paying for food. Yet it’s not clear where the extra money is going. Multiple attempts were made in the writing of this article to access a more detailed dining services budget, but it was difficult to get in contact with anyone who could provide this information. Responders to budget inquiries pointed to the University’s donations to the E-Gap program, providing limited emergency resources to low-income sBrown tudents. They also brought up a working group, specifically addressing the topic of food security, that could provide the opportunity to discuss and strategize about this proposal in the upcoming months.

 

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The workers moving the boxes at the RI Food Bank walk over 7 miles a day, transporting food around the facility. This food is eventually delivered to food pantries like Better Lives and West End to keep their shelves stocked for the local communities that rely on them. However, there’s risk in coming years that these boxes will not be enough. Rising housing prices, cuts to SNAP benefits, food price inflation, and increases in grocery store efficiency threaten to increase the meal gap. Without further assistance, more people will struggle to find food.

Brown University has the opportunity to help decrease the meal gap and assist food insecure Rhode Islanders across the state. This starts with discussing the possibility to implement a program like Swipe Out Hunger’s and should extend into a larger conversation about addressing the systemic causes of food insecurity.

 

KSHITIJ SACHAN B‘22, JOHN GRAVES B‘22, and NELL SALZMAN B’22 want more people to learn about the RI food bank.