Under the specter of an enormous replica of the Stay Puft marshmallow man from "Ghostbusters," a crowd of Providence Place Mall visitors stand transfixed. Not with fear of impending doom by marshmallow, but with wonder at the architectural and structural genius of the enormous can sculptures adorning the mall's skywalk.
It's the Rhode Island Community Food Bank's second annual "Canstruction Competition."
Eliciting responses of shock, "aww" and downright disbelief, the sculptures are a creative way to gather canned foods - organizers expect they have raised at least 20,000 cans weighing over ten tons - and increase awareness for the Bank at a time when rising food prices, sky-high energy costs and increased demand present new challenges for feeding the Ocean State's needy.
The current state of the economy means that demand for the Bank's services have way outstripped its supply in the past two years. Demand for food in Rhode Island's 20 largest distribution centers has risen about 10 percent every month compared to last year, according to Michael Cerio, a spokesman for the Food Bank.
"When you are serving about eight to 10 thousand people per day, 10 percent can be a big part of the pie," Cerio says. "Maybe the food won't go as far this year as it would have two years ago."
In the skywalk are six sculptures made of non-perishable goods, including cans of baked beans, water bottles and Tabasco sauce containers. Each sculpture is created by pairs of local architecture and construction firms that raised money to purchase the food. Along with the Stay Puft man stands an interpretation of the Providence skyline and a drive-in movie theater, complete with a real movie projection. Particularly striking is a fire-fighting scene with a Hunt's tomato sauce fire-hydrant and canned-peach flames. The exhibit will remain on display until Sept. 27.
"This is a huge food drive for us," says Cerio. "But along with that, these (sculptures) are really, really cool ... and it's a creative way to get people thinking about the needy."
If it's awareness that the Bank wants to achieve with the exhibit, it certainly seems to be succeeding. The sculptures elicit squawks, cheers and in several cases, arguments over their relative merits. Several onlookers take pictures with their cell phones as a guard watches over the crowd.
"Oh snap!" says Lucia Ramirez upon seeing the sculptures. "The marshmallow guy is tight."
Ramirez and a friend stop to read the accompanying signs, and express support for the cause, but say they have no plans to donate to the Bank.
Unfortunately, that's not what the Bank wants to hear. The event comes at a time of increasing need. Cerio says that soaring energy costs mean drastically higher fees for transporting food from sellers and to centers. Transporting a fully-loaded truckload from beginning to end used to cost the Bank about $2,000 a few years ago. Now it costs $3,000.
Cerio also says manufacturers are charging more for food, even at wholesale, and have less excess supply to donate to the Bank.
Despite these challenges, the Bank has managed to serve 8.3 and 8.4 million pounds of food in the last two years respectively, consistent with previous years.
"We have been flat for the last two years, but considering everything, we think flat is pretty good," Cerio says.
Even with the increasing challenges of the weak economy, the Bank's message still seems to be resonating, at least with some exhibit visitors.
"The economy is so bad right now," says Meredith Olson, a shopper at the mall. "It's good people are still helping out."