U.S. Sen. Jack Reed stopped by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s Niantic Avenue headquarters Monday afternoon to announce $40 million in federal aid to help fight hunger and food inequality in the Ocean State.

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed stopped by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s Niantic Avenue headquarters Monday afternoon to announce $40 million in federal aid to help fight hunger and food inequality in the Ocean State.

Reed said that the funds included in the American Rescue Plan would go toward several measures aimed at reducing child poverty and feeding families. A 15 percent increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits was extended through September. The senator said the hike presents an additional $27 per Rhode Islander per month, or $108 for a family of four.

He also discussed a “substantial influx” of money into the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer, or P-EBT, program, through the end of the COVID-19 crisis. He said the initiative “helps families purchase food for children whose access to meals through their schools have been impacted by COVID.”

Reed said $3.4 million would be dedicated to administrative costs related to food assistance, such as websites, outreach and connecting eligible residents to programs. Larger allotments to national agencies will benefit the Ocean State, too. He said $750 million was committed to Meals on Wheels, while the USDA received $880 million to “deliver more expandable access to fruits and vegetables for mothers and children.”

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re not out of this crisis yet. We’ve got to be vigilant, we’ve got to ensure the pandemic doesn’t turn into a deeper economic crisis with a eviction epidemic and a hunger epidemic, on top of the public health emergency. The Food Bank is essential to this effort. I salute their incredible work,” Reed said. “Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for hunger. We’ve got to make it our mission to ensure everyone in our community has a place at the table.”

Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff said that the organization’s statewide network saw a significant increase in need when the pandemic began last year. Member agencies went from helping 53,000 people each month to more than 68,000. He cited research from Brown University that showed, three months into the pandemic, one in four Rhode Island households “could not afford adequate food.”

He said the disparity was even worse for the state’s Black and Latinx households, which saw a one-in-three rate.

“Food pantry lines are like a barometer of human suffering, and no one’s ever just hungry,” Schiff said. “The people standing in line for food assistance also need help paying their rent, utilities. Today, we are optimistic and hopeful for an end to the COVID-19 crisis, as more people get vaccinated, and get protected from disease, but we also need to make sure that people are protected from the economic hardships caused by COVID-19.”

He took a moment to thank Reed and Congress for passing the “life-saving and life-changing” American Rescue Plan that made the aid possible.

“Fortunately, the American Rescue Plan recognizes both the depth and the severity of the current crisis,” Schiff said. “So through the American Rescue Plan, Congress recognized that it’s going to take a while for the economy to recover. It’s going to take a lot of government assistance to repair the damage done to our economy, in Rhode Island, we can thank our congressional delegation, led by Sen. Reed, for enacting the American Rescue Plan.”

Kathleen Gorman, director of the Feinstein Center for a Hunger Free America at the University of Rhode Island, said the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided some “initial advancements” for SNAP benefits last year. It wasn’t nearly comprehensive enough, though, she said. More than half of Rhode Island SNAP recipients weren’t eligible for enhanced payments, so the provision in the American Rescue Plan to apply the 15 percent increase to all beneficiaries was essential.

“That has just made a tremendous difference for seniors, for families, for working adults, for adults who are no longer working because they’ve lost their job,” Gorman said. “One of the things we know is, not only people who lost their jobs, but so many individuals particularly women, had to leave their jobs to stay home with their children because childcare centers closed, because the schools closed, because they went on the hybrid models. What happened to the children? They lost their breakfast and lunch programs, or they had it some days and not other days.”

Gorman added that she hopes the P-EBT program becomes an institution over time.

“[P-EBT] allows families to have SNAP benefits, additional benefits for their children and if they’re not SNAP recipients, low-income households that qualify for free and reduced lunch, they can get an EBT card, a debit card, and have an added benefit so they don’t have to worry about where their children are going to get their next meal,” Gorman said. “So both of those, along with so many of the other great things that are in the American Rescue Plan, help to extend and fortify this effort.”

Rilwan Feyisitan Jr., executive director of the Community Action Partnership of Providence, serves on the Food Bank’s board of directors. He said the American Rescue Plan is a “great lifeline,” but the work to end food inequality is far from over.

He said CAPP looks forward to serving the community during the recovery phase of the pandemic, but the state isn’t quite at that stage yet.

“I get to be a leader of an organization that’s serving and will continue to serve the recovery base, so as we go through this rescue phase, we are looking forward to recovery. We’re not there yet,” Feyisitan said. “So that’s that cautionary tale that last year, we see people who will directly be impacted because of this work that the senator has done, we’ve got much more work to do. As we all know in Rhode Island, before the pandemic, but we had too many people that are struggling. Our economy was struggling, people were struggling to get jobs.”

Feyisitan said that people who had previously donated to the organization had become recipients of its help over the past year, and residents are still struggling even as glimmers of hope appear.

“So we’re excited to be able to roll up our sleeves with the senator, and we’re hoping that Congress in a bipartisan way will really work to the next level of recovery,” he said. “It’s hard to even talk about that when we’re still in the middle of it, but what this rescue act has done is give us the shot in the arm that we needed, next to the COVID vaccine. So now we’re looking for getting people back into a robust economy and a place where we’re helping our neighbors in need like we’ve never done before.”

- article by Jacob Marrocco, Cranston Herald 4/07/2021