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Food insecurity, a statewide issue

Jake, Edith, Edison, Nell and Margaret

“It’s like, ‘which bill do you pay?’” Iaciofano said.

Without the food and other assistance her family receives from Community Care Alliance (CCA), “I’ve got to be honest. I think my kids would probably go hungry,” she said. “You try not to get stressed but obviously it’s stressful.”

Iaciofano spoke with Ocean State Stories at CCA’s food pantry, part of the organization’s Family Support Center, 245 Main Street in Woonsocket. The center and CCA programs at other locations also provide behavioral health, education, housing, and many other services.

Like Iaciofano, Sue Rennie, another food pantry client, relies on CCA. Retired after a career as an office worker, she lives on Social Security.

“When I was done [with] my working years, things weren’t quite as easy as I thought they were going to be,” she said. “All the prices started going up on anything and everything. And so your money doesn’t go as far as you were used to it going.”

CCA has helped Rennie not only keep food on the table but remain living in her house.

“You come in once a month and they’ll give you commodities,” she said. “In addition to that, you’re allowed to come and get a food voucher for one of the churches in the city [that provide food]. I also found out that I could get help with paying for the oil to heat my home. That’s been a real godsend.”

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Elba Gonzalez, a client, told of her appreciation for the help she receives from Family Support Center. “The food service is very important,” said Gonzalez, who lives with a disability and spoke through a translator, Madeline Silva, center supervisor.

Noely Quinones, an employee of housing agency NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley, agreed. Quinones is raising her two children alone.

The pantry, she said, “has been very useful, especially during hard times when you have to juggle between what bills you’re going to pay. Do you have enough food? Are the food stamps enough?”

Services statewide

 Quinones said that with all the services it offers, the center “is this great resource where you can get additional food, you get your vouchers, whether it’s for food as well as for clothing. It’s been a great program. I have been using it as much as I can when I’m really in need.”

According to Michelle P. Taylor, CCA’s Vice President of Social Health Services, the organization annually serves about 16,000 people, “across the lifespan from birth to death. With over 50 programs, we are serving people statewide.”  Many are in Woonsocket, Burrillville, North Smithfield, Lincoln, and Cumberland.

Heather Hole Strout, executive director of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center, walked into the center’s pantry on Dr. Marcus Wheatland Blvd. in Newport on this recent afternoon and greeted staff members who were busy helping clients. Lively conversations abounded.

Nutritious food and social contact, Strout told Ocean State Stories, both have significant value for the more than 5,600 people her center assists throughout Newport County, which includes Newport, Jamestown, Middletown, Portsmouth, Tiverton, and Little Compton.

The need is large, according to Strout – and the population served may come as a surprise to some, she said.

“When people think of who comes to a food pantry, I think a lot have a vision of people who are living on the streets and that’s very much not the reality,” she said.

“We have people who come here all the time that are working two jobs, that are trying to support a family,” Strout continued. “We have some large families that no matter how hard they work, they’re just not going to be able to make ends meet. And the reality is that we live in a community where a one-bedroom apartment is $2,000 a month and if you’re making anything under probably $30 an hour, you’re going to struggle with making ends meet.”

According to its latest annual report, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center provided 657,240 meals through its hunger programs in 2022. In fact, the center distributed more than 85,000 pounds of produce, and its Mobile Pantry, similar to the Rhode Island Public Health Institute’s Food on the Move program, made 156 visits to 20 neighborhoods. Twenty-nine percent of center clients identified as Hispanic/Latinx, with 30% children from birth to age 17, and 29% adults 55 and older.

Founded in 1922, the center buys some of its food and for the rest relies on donations from the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, Stop & Shop, Shaw’s, the Newport Restaurant Group, Stoneacre, farmers markets, foundations and trusts, municipalities, businesses, individuals and other sources.

In addition to fresh produce and frozen items, the pantry offers milk and eggs, canned goods, healthy grains including farro and quinoa, cereals, personal hygiene products, household cleaning products, and pet food and pet supplies. Many of the cereals such as Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Cheerios are geared to children, deliberately.

Food insecurity rate at 8.4%

 An analysis by Stacker, the New York City-based media outlet that specializes in data-driven journalism, showed that in 2020 Newport County’s child food insecurity rate was 12.7% (at 19.6%, Providence County has the state’s highest rate). The overall food insecurity rate was 8.4% (at 11.6%, Providence County was highest), according to Stacker, which analyzed data from Feeding America, the Chicago-based national hunger-relief organization.

The two-story building at 404 Broad Street in Providence is steeped in history. Built in 1868 as a livery, it has housed a bank branch, a grocery store, and now, after an extensive and award winning renovation, the headquarters of the Southside Community Land Trust.

The Land Trust has been making history of its own since its 1981 founding – and it continues to do so with innovative programs and community gardens and farms that get fresh produce into economically challenged urban households, executive director Margaret DeVos said on a visit to 404 Broad.

“What we’re trying to do is connect the farmers and the food growers with the actual consumers so that people have access not just to enough food, but to food that helps them succeed in life, food that’s healthy and keeps people out of the doctor’s office,” DeVos said.

“There’s no healthy food system that works for people in South Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls,” DeVos continued. “It’s not reliable. And so we are day in and day out working with people who want to create reliable sources of fresh, healthy, affordable food for their families and their communities.” Some of these individuals are at risk for chronic and potentially deadly diseases such as diabetes – a risk that an unhealthy diet raises.

The trust’s latest annual report tells a story:

  • The trust serves about 15,000 people a year, including individuals who feed themselves from gardens and farms;
  • 85% of gardeners live below the poverty line;
  • 30 farm businesses grow on the trust’s more than 70 acres of rural farmland;
  • 55 community organizations have partnered with the trust; and
  • 34 languages are spoken in the organization’s gardens.

When Edith Paye and daughter Nell left their native Liberia for Rhode Island in 1994, they initially experienced difficulty in finding the kinds of healthy food they ate in their homeland. But with Southside Community Land Trust’s commitment to culturally sensitive food, they and other immigrants have been satisfied.

“The Land Trust has done so much for not only my family but for the West African community as a whole,” Nell told Ocean State Stories.

Along with others, the Payes grow crops on lots and farms overseen by the Land Trust, notably Urban Edge Farm, 50 acres of state-owned land in Cranston that is under long-term lease to Southside.

The farms there are “operated by people originally from Liberia, the Dominican Republic and the Hmong region of Laos, as well as the U.S.,” the trust states on its website.

According to Nell, the West African community could not afford to buy the land on which its members farm. “Without the Land Trust, none of this would be happening,” she said.

Some 100 households annually get food directly from land the Payes farm, Nell said, and some produce is sold to local restaurants and at farmers markets and farm stands. The Rhode Island Public Health Institute’s Food on the Move program sources some of its produce from the trust.

Along with growing and consuming healthy food, Nell said, Land Trust activities provide fellowship, especially important when someone dies. The Paye family experienced that intimately when Counsuo Gaye Paye, Nell’s brother and Edith’s son, died of cancer at the age of 37 in June 2022.

“The farm was the place that allowed not only my mom but all of us to be with each other,” Nell said. “Everyone came to take our minds off, to kind of rest his soul, to talk. We grew everything that he liked to grow that season and then cooked it to have a big thing. So that’s why we do it: to have that place of community and cultural practices.”

In 2020, she said, “during the beginning of COVID, the whole harvest season was dedicated to” those who were lost.

“We’re not doing this to” profit, Edith said, “but to help.”

And that, she declared, brings a harvest of “happiness from all our farms.” Back at Community Care Alliance’s Family Support Center in Woonsocket, Albert Martin, 71, recapped his long career at submarine-builder Electric Boat, which ended when he was 68. “I had to retire because of poor health,” he said. “I’m on insulin. My wife’s on insulin and all kinds of medication.”

Martin also suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD. “It’s bad,” he said. “I keep going to the doctor’s.”

At Electric Boat, Martin said, “I used to make five thousand dollars a month. I lost that and everything went downhill. Social security — you can’t live on that. And my wife is disabled. So somebody one day told me about the food pantry, so I came.”

Now, he said, “I apply for everything I can get,” including heating assistance.

“If you have a food need, you might also have a challenge with paying your bills for heat, just like Albert was talking about,” said Darlene Magaw, director of Family Support Services. “You might also be behind on your rent or having some challenges because your family is facing challenges with domestic violence or you have a teenager who is going through a difficult time.”

In such situations, Magaw said, staff’s response is: How can we connect you to some other resource in the agency?

“Because it’s not just food services,” Magaw said. “It’s the whole person, it’s the whole family.”

“It helps a lot,” Martin said. “And the food is good. I have no complaints.”

Ocean State Stories is a new, Rhode Island-focused media outlet based at Salve Regina University’s Pell Center. This article is the second in a two-part series about food insecurity in Rhode Island. Story copyright 2023 Salve Regina University. Originally published at OceanStateStories.org