Nationally relevant

RI Sees Record Food Insecurity and Hunger: Push in the General Assembly to provide free lunch and breakfast for all RI students

In November, the Rhode Island Community Food Bank released a report showing that a record number of Rhode Islanders are seeking food assistance, with communities of color and families with children at the greatest risk of hunger. The 2023 Status Report on Hunger has four major findings:


• A record number of Rhode Islanders need food assistance due to high prices, the steep rise in housing costs, and the end of COVID relief programs.

• Nearly one in three Rhode Island households cannot afford adequate food.

• Communities of color and families with children are at the greatest risk of hunger.

• Ending free meals for all students led to a decline in the number of children participating in school breakfasts and lunches in Rhode Island.

“Our member agencies saw an average of 77,500 people a month, from January through September 2023,” said Andrew Schiff, chief executive officer of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. “Many families, even with two incomes, are simply unable to keep up with the rising costs of rent, utilities, and food. When you couple that with the end of several COVID-era benefits, it’s very concerning.”

“In 2023, low-income families in Rhode Island faced many challenges,” noted Schiff. “They lost critical resources, programs, and benefits that were available during the pandemic, and they experienced continued inflation in basic expenses including rent, utilities, and food. During the pandemic, Congress approved emergency SNAP benefits. SNAP is a supplemental nutrition assistance program, and that emergency allocation ended in March 2023. The emergency allocation enabled 88,000 Rhode Island households enrolled in SNAP to purchase additional food each month during the pandemic. When these extra SNAP benefits ended in March, benefits decreased by a huge amount – down 31% for the state as a whole. SNAP benefits went down by $13 million per month. For each household, on average, benefits went down by $155 per month, enough to purchase a week’s worth of groceries. In the month that SNAP benefits were cut, we witnessed a dramatic and sudden increase in the number of people seeking assistance at food pantries.”

“Another critical program that was available during the pandemic that’s now ended is free school meals,” said Schiff. “We show in our report that participation in school lunch and breakfast dropped when school meals were no longer free for all students. School lunch participation dropped by 15%. School breakfast participation went down by almost 30%. By comparison, Massachusetts made school meals free for all students even after the federal program ended. Participation in lunch and breakfast went up in Massachusetts schools last year rather than down as it did in Rhode Island. The Food Bank is part of a coalition of nonprofits and a teacher’s union advocating for free school meals for all students. Eight other states have made free school meals a permanent policy – Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, California, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, and New Mexico. We can do it too.”

“Healthy meals for all students has been a priority of mine for quite some time,” said Senator Sandra Cano (D, District 8, Pawtucket), the Senate sponsor of the bill to provide lunch and breakfast to all students. “This morning I was reading the report and it was reported that 38% of households with at least one child younger than the age of 18 cannot afford food. The number is 48% for Black households and 51% for Latino households.

“This is more than a hunger issue. This is an equity issue. We saw the Healthy School Meals for All policy in action during the COVID pandemic, when federal funding was provided from the USDA to offer meals free of charge to all students. With federal waivers expired, RI has the opportunity to ensure our children are hunger-free and ready to learn.”

“The reality is that too many RI children are hungry, but it is well within our power to change that by making sure every single student can access free breakfast and lunch at school,” said Representative Justine Caldwell (D, District 30, East Greenwich), the House sponsor of the bill. “Because during the pandemic, the federal government provided free meals to all students, we have data that tells us how integral these meals are to students.

“We know that when Rhode Island stopped offering free meals, school lunch participation decreased… My heart skipped a beat when I saw that statistic. It was so difficult and heartbreaking to imagine the kids who now start the school day without breakfast. Meanwhile, our neighbors in Massachusetts extended their free meals program, and of course, what happened is that more students accessed breakfast and lunch. This tells us everything.”

Governor Daniel McKee consistently highlights Rhode Island’s low unemployment rates and “economic momentum” but with RI facing record food insecurity, record homelessness, and record evictions, how real is this economic good news?

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