Dramatic increase for food assistance in R.I.

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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 Monday by the R.I. Community Food Bank.

Local emergency food pantries are reporting a large spike in the number of first-time users.

“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 Monday. “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.”

According to the Food Bank’s 2012 Status Report on Hungerreleased Monday, 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.

At a press-only event Monday 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 Monday, said he fully supports SNAP benefits.

“Thursday’s Thanksgiving, and we have a lot to be thankful for,” he said. “But we also 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.”

Action steps needed

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.

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