PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The pandemic caused a dramatic increase in the number of Rhode Islanders struggling to put food on the table, according to the R.I. Community Food Bank.

The 2023 Rhode Island Hunger Survey, which is conducted every four years, states that 120,000 Rhode Islanders, or 11% of the state’s overall population, live in households with incomes below poverty.

The average number of families requiring food assistance each month has ballooned since the previous survey — from 53,000 in 2019 to 75,000 in 2023.

“Hunger is a serious public health problem,” R.I. Community Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff said.

An even steeper increase was noted in the median estimated amount households would need to spend on food per week: 2019’s $66 per week pales in comparison to 2023’s $98 per week.

SNAP benefits, which are awarded monthly, are covering no more than two weeks’ household expenses for 70% of those who completed the survey. Some believe that these benefits are a starting point for addressing increasing food insecurity in Rhode Island.

“Since so many people who are currently on SNAP are relying on our services too, higher SNAP benefits [will mean] less people are going to need food pantries and meal sites,” Schiff said.

Nearly half of those surveyed rated their health status as either fair or poor, of which a high percentage reported suffering from a chronic disease.

“There’s a real concern over the health of those that we serve, and making sure that we’re giving them the best nutrition possible because poor nutrition leads to poor health,” Schiff explained.