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2023 Hunger Survey reveals rise in food insecurity

According to survey, monthly SNAP benefits only last two weeks for most R.I. families

<p>St. Stephen's Episcopal Church hosts the Epiphany Soup Kitchen, an independent non-profit, every Saturday.</p>

St. Stephen's Episcopal Church hosts the Epiphany Soup Kitchen, an independent non-profit, every Saturday.

On Oct. 11, the Rhode Island Community Food Bank released its 2023 Rhode Island Hunger Survey. Commissioned every four years, the survey found that the majority of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients in Rhode Island cannot make their monthly benefits last longer than two weeks, and that demand for food banks has jumped sharply since 2019.

Through SNAP, Rhode Island residents receive monthly electronic benefit transfers which they can use to purchase food at grocery stores, supermarkets and farmers’ markets.

Michelle Rogers, assistant professor of behavioral and social sciences in the School of Public Health, helped organize the survey. In an email to The Herald, she wrote that the report represents a random sample of 65 food pantries and meal sites affiliated with the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. 

A team of trained food bank volunteers and SPH’s Survey Research Center staff conducted face-to-face interviews with clients attending the food assistance sites between April and June 2023.


According to the 2019 survey, an average of 53,000 people sought food assistance in Rhode Island each month. In 2023, that number has jumped to 75,000.

The 2023 survey found that nearly 80% of the population receiving food assistance has incomes below the federal poverty level or an annual household income of $30,000 for a family of four. That figure jumps to 90% when considering households with children.

David Banno, president and CEO of Community Action Partnership of Providence County, said that the federal poverty level might not be representative of all those who seek out food assistance in Rhode Island.

“People look at this survey, and they go, ‘Oh yeah, of course, those people who are super (impoverished) are using the food bank,’” he said. “But you don’t understand that your neighbors … come to our food banks too.”

CAPP provides support services and programs to Providence County residents to help them attain economic self-sufficiency, according to the organization’s website. The nonprofit runs one of the largest food banks in Providence County.  

Banno said that since last spring, CAPP’s food pantry has seen a modest increase in the number of families it serves weekly. This increase occurred after additional SNAP benefits from the COVID-19 pandemic ended in the spring.

In March, the federal government ended the allocation of extra SNAP benefits, which began as a pandemic measure in March 2020.

The month after increased SNAP benefits ended, the R.I. Community Food Bank saw a 25% jump in visits to member food pantries, said Lisa Roth Blackman, the organization’s chief philanthropy officer. While expanded benefits were relatively new, “people got used to it, and I think (they) were relying on those funds to help make ends meet in their household.”

Despite the broad utilization of food assistance services, aid continues to fall short for SNAP recipients. According to the Hunger Survey, Rhode Island households enrolled in SNAP receive just $315 per month on average, or $78.75 per week. The 2023 survey estimated that 70% of families exhaust those benefits within two weeks. In 2019, that figure was 49%.

Blackman cited rising food prices, which have outpaced overall inflation over the past year, as a central contributor to the struggle to make SNAP benefits last. The survey results also showed that nearly a quarter of families surveyed lived in temporary housing, such as a shelter or campground, or had no housing at all.


“Parents will say, well, I’ll miss a meal if I have to to make sure that I can pay rent and my kids will eat,” Blackman said. “Food is fungible in that way, but housing is not as fungible, so food is what might get cut if they’re trying to make sure they keep a roof over their heads.”

But while inflation is an easy answer, the real culprit for rising food costs is “corporate greed,” Banno said. 

“Corporations know they can charge more because it’s accepted to charge more, and the government doesn’t do anything about it,” he said.  

John Shea, a Rhode Island resident and veteran who is currently unhoused, said the rising cost of food and drop in SNAP funding has put him in “survival mode.” He now receives $66 a month in SNAP benefits, he said.  

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“I couldn’t live on that for two weeks, never mind a month. So it’s a scramble,” Shea said.

Beyond issues of insufficient food assistance, the products offered at food banks are not always suitable for those in need, Shea said. He used to attend food pantries on a regular basis to pick up staples like milk, orange juice and eggs, but has recently stopped visiting as he believes food options have become more limited and, he said, less nutritious.

Food pantries were also “giving out things that weren’t edible for some folks that are living on the streets,” Shea added. “You can’t heat up dinners and things like that when you’re living on the street.”

Food insecurity in Rhode Island intersects with issues such as housing and health, according to the survey. Nearly half of survey respondents rated their health status as fair or poor, and food-insecure respondents had higher rates of chronic disease than national averages.

The chronic medical conditions food assistance beneficiaries may complicate the types of food they can consume. To address this issue, Blackman said the R.I. Food Bank has increased the amount of produce they distribute to families, as produce tends to naturally be lower in sodium, carbohydrates and other nutrients that might need to be avoided with chronic health conditions.

Food insecurity is also associated with race. 12% of the survey respondents were Black, and 33 percent were Latinx, while the state of Rhode Island is 6% Black and 18% Latinx, according to U.S. Census Bureau’s estimates.

Banno said he was most disturbed by the racial statistics the survey uncovered: “Our system is totally skewed,” he said.

Yael Sarig

Yael is a senior staff writer covering city and state politics. She is junior, and hails from the Bay Area.

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