Food & Farming

For Some, Asking for Help is Biggest Hurdle in Overcoming Food Insecurity

Health concerns, fear of deportation, and inability to use SNAP for food-delivery services keep some from accessing food assistance

Food-assistance services are reporting greater access to resources by relying less on local grocery store donations, which have declined, and making acquisitions directly from food distributors. (istock)

Soup kitchens and food pantries are coping with the increased need for a stronger social safety net. But not everyone who now needs help feels comfortable using these services, even as heightened need is expected to endure with the economic downturn that will follow the pandemic.

After a six-week surge that shocked and strained food services, most of Rhode Island’s pantries and soup kitchens have adequate inventory to meet the increased need. The Rhode Island Community Food Bank is staving off shortages with timely deliveries of supplies, even as demand grows. The state’s central distributor typically delivers between 225,000 and 250,000 pounds of food weekly. But during the last week of April, the Community Food Bank delivered 337,045 pounds to pantries and soup kitchens.

Food-assistance services are reporting greater access to resources by relying less on local grocery store donations, which have declined, and making acquisitions directly from food distributors. Meals and food staples are being distributed outdoors to maintain physical distancing. Good Neighbors, a food pantry, soup kitchen, and shelter in Riverside, is offering drive-through food pickup to meet its 150 percent increase in patronage.

But not all people in need are using these services. Many of the state’s newly food insecure fear visiting food pantries for the first time. Pilar McCloud, CEO of the youth organization A Sweet Creation, said many young people, in particular, are unfamiliar with social services and struggle to trust people they don’t know. She noted that undocumented immigrants fear that using food-assistance resources will lead to detention by federal immigration authorities.

“They are feeling a little skeptical about going out and getting food,” McCloud said. “They are feeling reluctant to say they are hungry.”

Andrew Schiff, CEO of the Community Food Bank, promised that any information collected by food pantries, which is typically a name and phone number, isn’t shared with police or immigration authorities.

“There are all sorts of reasons people hesitate, but we wish that they wouldn’t,” Schiff said. “None of them need to feel they should not ask for help.”

Schiff estimated that the collective demand is up 33 percent at Rhode Island’s 168 food pantries, meal sites, and shelters. He said relief efforts are complicated by the fact that a deep economic downturn is occurring during a public-health crisis. Concern about the coronavirus keeps many of those in need of help indoors.

The economic downturn of 2008-09 gave the state’s food system a sample of the prolonged recession that is expected from COVID-19.

“The Great Recession was bad enough,” Schiff said. “Now we have all that plus the complication of health emergencies.”

Record unemployment claims in Rhode Island and the unknown path of the global pandemic will certainly test the system, he added. He said more support is needed from the federal government, such as a broad 15 percent increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

“From everything we can tell, there is going to be severe economic fallout from the health emergency,” Schiff said.

McCloud noted that this health crisis has unmasked the poverty and food insecurity that have existed for years.

“COVID-19 didn’t expose anything we weren’t experience already,” McCloud said. “Now everyone can see it.”

Already-strained household budgets are being stressed further by unemployment. Low-income neighborhoods, most notably in Providence, have few stores offering healthy food. Shoppers are buying greater amounts of basic necessities, leading to empty shelves and a perception of hoarding.

“We’re all in the same boat, but we all have different oars rowing,” McCloud said.

A different scenario, however, is playing out on Block Island, where the suspension of the construction and tourism industries has created a wave of unemployed workers who would otherwise be preparing for the summer rush. The only grocery store on the island doesn’t accept SNAP benefits, forcing recipients to decide if they should go to the mainland to shop and then return to quarantine for two weeks.

“They are really hurting,” said Kate Brewster, executive director of the Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale. “They are waiting for the season to start, and it hasn’t started.”

To ease the burden, Brewster ferried over 5,000 pounds of food in two vans to help feed some 70 families through the local food pantry. While Block Island Grocery has yet to accept SNAP, some seafood retailers on the island were recently approved to process purchases through the federal food-assistance program.

The Rhode Island Department of Human Services (DHS) has been easing the food crisis by receiving federal approvals to extend and expand SNAP benefits. In one program, families that received free or discount meals from schools are now receiving additional money and benefits to buy food on their own.

DHS is urging more retailers to offer mobile point-of-service (POS) sales to SNAP recipients via delivery or curbside pickup. So far, only Farm Fresh Rhode Island offers mobile electronic benefits transfer (EBT) sales, but on a limited basis. Farm Fresh and the Rhode Island Food Policy Council are training farmers to accept SNAP and receive grants for mobile POS devices.

DHS is still waiting for permission from the federal Food and Nutrition Service to join a handful of states that allow SNAP purchases online. The Food Retailers Association is being asked to facilitate SNAP delivery via the internet and POS devices.

DHS recently approved submitting SNAP applications over the phone instead of through the traditional paper form. The rule requiring an interview for households to receive expedited service was waived until May 31. Collection activity for overpayment of SNAP benefits was also suspended.

“All of these things are helping SNAP participants in some way — preventing closure, allowing them to maintain the stability of their benefits, increasing food/benefit access, providing greater purchasing power, and overall helping to reduce hunger during this crisis,” according to a DHS statement.

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