EAST BAY — Arthur Connelly would love to be driven out of business.
“I wish the food pantries were doing poorly,” said Mr. Connelly, the floor manager at Bristol Good Neighbors, a pantry and soup kitchen in downtown Bristol. “When we get busy, that means people need help.”
Unfortunately, he added, “for the past few years or so we’ve been really busy.”
Food donations are down, yet there are more hungry mouths to feed in Rhode Island than ever before. The Ocean State now ranks highest in New England for food insecurity, according to a report released last week by the R.I. Community Food Bank.
According to the Food Bank’s 2012 Status Report on Hunger, more than 15 percent of Rhode Islanders — about 67,000 households — experience “food insecurity,” which is defined as having limited access to adequate food for healthy living. Of that amount, 6 percent report the most severe conditions associated with hunger.
“In the aftermath of the Great Recession, thousands of Rhode Islanders cannot afford adequate food and would go hungry if it were not for federal nutrition programs and the Food Bank’s statewide network of emergency food programs,” said Andrew Schiff, chief executive officer of the R.I. Community Food Bank. The Food Bank has 178 member agencies.
Enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp program) has more than doubled in the Ocean State since 2007, with more than 175,000 Rhode Islanders receiving SNAP benefits.
The large spike in the number of first-time users at local emergency food pantries reflect those numbers.
“We’re seeing a lot of new faces, which is not good,” said Judy Macedo of the East Bay Community Action Program (EBCAP), which has food pantries in Riverside, Tiverton and Newport.
Ms. Macedo, the Safety Net family advocate for EBCAP, said more elderly people are visiting the pantries and many clients are learning about food assistance through other programs the agency runs, such as its health center.
“We’re seeing an unusual number of clients who basically waited until the last minute to come access our services,” she said. “They’re depleting their 401ks, they’re using credit cards, they’re just doing everything they can to keep from coming in. We’re hoping that people will have a change in mindset and realize they don’t really have to do that.”
More first-time users
Other local food pantries are also seeing many new faces come through their doors. Anita Randall, executive director of East Bay Food Pantry in Bristol, said the pantry is serving nearly 5,000 clients in the East Bay now — up from between 3,500 and 4,000 only a year ago.
“It’s still increasing year to year,” said Ms. Randall.
Among the pantry’s new clients is a woman caring for three older children after having gone through a recent divorce. “Lots of bills when you suddenly become a single parent. Even with her working nearly full-time, the wage is not enough to live on,” said Ms. Randall, adding that the food pantry allows the woman to get caught up on some of her bills.
“That’s the kind of demographic of people we’re seeing — people who are working, trying to get by, trying to do the right thing, trying to pay their bills and who are just really struggling. These aren’t folks who are just looking for handouts. This is something they really did not want to have to take advantage of and it was a big step to come in here and receive help,” she said.
When she first started at Bristol Good Neighbors three and a half years ago, Executive Director Ann Wiard said the pantry served an average of 89 families a month. “Then it jumped to over 300 in a year and a half,” she said.
Although the demand for food has leveled out since last year, there are still new faces coming in to replace clients who have left, she said.
“I’ve had several people tell me that they’ve lost their job recently, and I’ve had several people tell me that they can’t find jobs,” said Mr. Connelly, adding that families with small children — especially single moms — and the elderly are the two main demographics that are asking for assistance.
People who are using the pantry for the first time are often embarrassed to be in their situation, he said. “They’re quiet. They don’t know what’s going on.”
But staff members are friendly and supply the children with toys such as stuffed animals and Hot Wheels cars. “We find that if we can grab the children and make them feel more comfortable, the parents start feeling more comfortable,” said Mr. Connelly, a retiree who volunteers at the pantry five days a week.
At the Food for Friends pantry run by The Westport Council of Aging, manager Heather Wilson is also reporting a higher demand.
“Just from May, since I took over, we signed up 10 new families,” she said, adding that about 95 people are currently registered for the pantry. “This time of year you’re getting people laid off from seasonal jobs — like carpenters— so you’re seeing more families come in.”
What’s needed most?
The Westport pantry is doing fine with food donations, but needs help in other ways.
“We need more volunteers than food at the moment because of the (holiday) food drive,” she said, adding that monetary donations are always needed as well. “Every dollar that they spend allows us to hand out four bags per household. It goes a long way.”
Cash is also king at the R.I. Community Food Bank member pantries, which use the money to buy discounted food.
“We can buy food at the Food Bank for 10 cents a pound. If you give as five dollars we can buy 50 pounds of food,” said Ms. Wiard at Bristol Good Neighbors. “Your five dollars goes a lot farther if you just donate it.”
Ms. Randall agreed. “We can really stretch those dollars and maximize what we’re able to do in terms of buying food,” she said.
Food donations are down at many pantries.
“We’ve had some major food drives lately and people are still generous, but they’re definitely much lower than in the past. The cost of food has gone up tremendously in the last year,” said Ms. Wiard, adding that other types of donations have stayed the same.
Ms. Randall emphasized that although December is the busiest time of year for food drives, hunger is not just a seasonal issue. Donations and volunteer help is needed throughout the year.
“In the summertime, children are out of school and they’re no longer getting a free or reduced lunch,” she said, adding that the pantry started a Summer Food for Kids program this year which provides 10 weeks of breakfast, lunch and snacks to kids in qualifying families.
“It’s basically replacing what they were getting at school, to make sure those kids are getting what they need,” she said, adding that the program is ongoing on the weekends for students at Colt Andrews School in Bristol.
“I know people remember during the holidays, but it really is a year-round issue.”
At a press-only event last week at the Food Bank headquarters in Providence, Mr. Schiff noted that there were many “attacks” on SNAP benefits during the presidential campaign. However, he said, SNAP helps to feed people and save lives, he said. Mr. Schiff said the Farm Bill now before Congress includes proposed cuts to SNAP “that would significantly hurt Rhode Islanders.”
Sen. Jack Reed, who was at the Food Bank event, said he fully supports SNAP benefits. “We have to recognize that there are a lot of families struggling to put food on the table and we have to stand up and help them,” he said.
The Food Bank recommended the following actions be taken to help families make ends meet:
• Urge members of Congress to re-work the Farm Bill and protect thousands of Rhode Island households from harmful cuts to SNAP.
• Hire more SNAP caseworkers to reduce caseloads and improve customer service at R.I. Department of Human Services offices.
• Increase state funding for the Food Bank to meet the high demand at food pantries.
• Offer hands-on nutrition education at food pantries throughout the state.
• Conduct outreach at food pantry sites to encourage all eligible families to enroll in SNAP and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
• Ensure that Rhode Island schools receive higher federal payments when they offer healthier meals to students.
• Promote summer meal programs in low-income communities to reach more hungry children.
To get a copy of the Food Bank’s 2012 Status Report on Hunger, visit www.rifoodbank.org.