Public Services

Hunger in Rhode Island Reaches Record Highs

A new report shows hunger in Rhode Island has reached record highs, with food insecurity and demand for food assistance rising to unprecedented levels due to inflation, loss of aid, and high costs. Nearly one third of households can’t reliably put food on the table.

November 21, 2023, 9:42 am

By Uprise RI Staff

A new report released by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank paints a dire picture of hunger in the state, with food insecurity and demand for food assistance reaching unprecedented levels. The 2023 Status Report on Hunger in Rhode Island reveals how the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, high inflation, and the loss of federal food aid have left nearly one third of Rhode Island households unable to reliably put food on the table.

The report finds that an average of 77,500 Rhode Islanders sought help from food pantries each month from January to September 2023. This represents a staggering 49% increase compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019 and 30% higher than 2022. The Rhode Island Community Food Bank and its statewide network of 143 partner agencies are struggling to meet the soaring need.

Behind these numbers are primarily low-income families with children and seniors. A shocking 72% of households visiting food pantries have kids or elderly members. Most subsist on annual incomes below the federal poverty threshold of $30,000 for a family of four. The report notes that even Rhode Island’s minimum wage of $13 per hour leaves a full-time worker supporting a family of four below the poverty line.

Communities of color face disproportionate hunger burdens. According to the RI Life Index survey cited in the report, 51% of Latino and 48% of Black households experienced food insecurity in 2023 compared to 23% for white households.

Several factors are driving record food insecurity. Grocery prices in Rhode Island spiked 11% from July 2022 to July 2023, exacerbating inflationary pressures. The average monthly SNAP benefit per household plunged by $155 in March 2023 when Congress ended emergency allotments granted during the pandemic. This SNAP cliff could not have come at a worse time as housing costs also continue to squeeze family budgets. Rhode Island’s fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment rose 14% over the last year.

Ending universal free school meals has also contributed to childhood hunger. When free cafeteria meals for all students expired in June 2022, the number of children participating in school breakfast and lunch programs dropped precipitously in Rhode Island, by 27% and 15% respectively. This contrasts sharply with Massachusetts where school meal participation has increased under a state-funded free meals for all students program.

The report issues an urgent call for federal and state officials to strengthen food aid programs. Proposed policy solutions include:

  • Raising SNAP benefit levels to keep pace with food inflation.
  • Reinstating the expanded Child Tax Credit, which reduced child poverty and food insecurity before lapsing in 2022.
  • Funding free school breakfast and lunch for all Rhode Island students.

While applauding recent increases in state funding for emergency food providers, the report stresses that food pantries can never compensate for cuts to federal food assistance. The Rhode Island Community Food Bank is advocating for bold government action to tackle the hunger crisis devastating the state’s most vulnerable residents.

This report highlights the harsh reality that food insecurity is higher today in Rhode Island than before the pandemic began in 2020. The loss of federal stimulus programs that kept many families afloat is pushing more residents into poverty and hunger. With inflationary pressures expected to persist, conditions may worsen without decisive intervention from policymakers. Ensuring all residents have access to adequate, nutritious food is both a moral and economic imperative. This report should serve as an urgent call to action for the state.