PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Community Food Bank released its annual Status Report on Hunger Monday, which found one in four households in Rhode Island lacks adequate food.
During July and August 2020, a random sample of 2,100 households were surveyed as part of the RI Life Index, an initiative of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island and the Brown University School of Public Health.
Researchers found despite federal assistance, 25% of households were worried about having adequate food, the highest level of food insecurity recorded in Rhode Island in 20 years.
“That’s shocking,” R.I. Community Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff said.
The report also notes Black and Latinx Rhode Islanders are experiencing even higher rates of food insecurity, “exacerbating already existing health and economic disparities.”
Schiff says what he finds most upsetting is that great strides were being made in reducing food insecurity after the 2008-2009 recession, but the pandemic set back that positive trend.
“We saw real improvement in Rhode Island. And then, this is a dramatic and bad turn around,” Schiff said.
Before the pandemic, 14.7% of Rhode Island households were food insecure in 2010, and according to the report, went down to 9.1% in 2019.
Prior to the pandemic, the Food Bank’s network of 159 food pantries and meal sites across the state was serving 53,700 Rhode Islanders each month. Schiff says by April 2020, that increased to nearly 68,000 people.
The report states in order to meet the growing need, the Food Bank increased its food distribution by 1.6 million pounds, or 45%, including 330,000 meals supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
According to the October 2020 State Employment and Unemployment Summary from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Rhode Island’s unemployment rate was 10.5% in September 2020, with 59,000 people out of work. This was up from 3.4% unemployment in February, when just 19,000 were unemployed.
In March, Congress passed the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, which gave extra financial assistance to laid-off workers, adding $600 per week to their unemployment insurance compensation. However, the benefits ended in July.
“This crisis isn’t over,” Schiff said. “We’re going to be dealing with economic recovery from this current downturn for a while.”
When the pandemic began, it caused people to stockpile supplies and food, leaving store shelves bare. Schiff says this adversely affected the Food Bank, which relies on donations of surplus food from supermarkets.
“Back then, we were in full emergency mode just to try to, every single day, make sure that there was enough food going out,” Schiff said.
Schiff also said with another surge of COVID-19 cases he’s still worried about the supply chain, but says the Food Bank is constantly ordering more food to keep up with the demand.
“We’re ordering full truckloads of rice, or canned vegetables, or soup, and those are taking forever to get in,” Schiff added.
The Food Bank also depends on volunteers, but has not been able to have them come in since March.
“Of course, it’s the right thing to do, because many of our volunteers are retired folks, they’re older, they can’t be here volunteering,” Schiff added.
He says the Food Bank has added extra staff to keep up with the increased amount of work.
“The way I say it to the staff is like, ‘we’re running a marathon, but nobody’s told us when the finish line is.’ We’d like to see that finish line, so at least we could know that we can get there, and we can get there making sure that everybody in Rhode Island is protected from hunger, and no one is suffering from hunger in the state,” Schiff said.