The number of citizens in need of food aid in November was the highest recorded in state history, according to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s “2012 Status Report on Hunger in Rhode Island” released last month. The report showed approximately 24 percent of Rhode Island households are recipients of federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program food stamp benefits, an approximately a 1 percent increase from June.
Donations to the Community Food Bank have also declined in recent years, predominantly due to rising food prices and the economic downturn, according to the report.
The report covers food aid efforts and organizations, highlighting successful programs such as healthy cooking courses for low-income individuals, subsidized summer meals for school children in high-risk neighborhoods and increased standards for public school meals.
Fred Sneesby, the communications officer at the Rhode Island Department of Human Services, attributed the increase in requests for food aid to the slow state and national economy, compounded by high unemployment. Rhode Island’s 10.4 percent unemployment rate is the second-highest in the country, according to the October report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Because a household receives SNAP benefits based on its size and income, underemployment is also a factor that led to the increase in requests, Sneesby said.
Individuals who work for minimum wage in Rhode Island, especially those with a family to support, usually qualify for federal food aid, noted Hilary Silver, associate professor of sociology. Continuing to provide food aid for those who need it, even if they have jobs, removes the incentive to live off welfare instead of finding a job, she said.
The view that food stamps are a sign of failing economy is misguided, Silver said. The SNAP program, which is designed for the “poor and the near-poor,” she said, brings federal money into the local economy by subsidizing food prices. Because people spend food subsidies right away, it’s an immediate economic stimulus, Silver said.
“I’d like to see everyone not be afraid to enroll in food programs,” she said, “because it helps put a floor under the working poor.”
The Community Food Bank is not the only effort to combat hunger in Rhode Island, though it is one of the largest, Silver said. Many nonprofits, church groups and businesses also help feed the hungry. But donations are not the solution, she said. “It’s a great tragedy that we have to have charity for something that should be a citizenship right.”
Recent changes to the DHS have also loosened the eligibility requirements for food aid, Sneesby said. For example, Rhode Island started using “broad-based categorical probability” in 2009, which calculates eligibility based on income instead of resources, according to a DHS report. This change is targeted “particularly at the underemployment or unemployed that have assets but no job,” Sneesby said, allowing more people to qualify for aid. “The rules used to be much stricter,” he said.
There are not necessarily more people who need aid, but there are more people being helped, he said, meaning the gap between the number of people eligible for aid and the number receiving it is shrinking. Roughly 80 percent of those who qualify for aid receive it, up from 60 percent a few years ago, Sneesby said.
But an influx of new recipients also means a greater workload for the DHS. “There have been continuous changes over the last few years, because as numbers increase, our staff has not,” Sneesby said. The office recently began allowing phone interviews instead of requiring face-to-face meetings, employees work more overtime hours – which allows applicants to interview outside of normal business hours – and the applications were simplified. Switching to online processing has also helped the office handle a greater volume of applications, Sneesby said.