For most Rhode Islanders, having food on the table is a given. But for far too many of our neighbors, missing meals is a daily reality – and a problem that an impending federal policy change appears likely to exacerbate in the months ahead.
According to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s recently released Status Report on Hunger in Rhode Island, low-income Rhode Islanders miss an average of 11.3 million meals annually. During an event held in conjunction with the report’s release, Andrew Schiff, the Food Bank’s CEO, said that figure takes into account assistance provided through his organization and federal assistance programs such as SNAP and WIC.
Now, planned changes to the eligibility rules for SNAP – which stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – are poised to affect thousands of state residents.
The Trump administration, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has finalized a rule that would limit the ability of states to grant waivers allowing able-bodied adults without dependents to receive additional SNAP benefits beyond the current eligibility restrictions.
Those rules presently allow for a maximum of three months of benefits during a three-year period. The waivers, which are based on local unemployment figures, have provided flexibility as states work to help those re-entering the workforce.
Federal authorities estimate the new restrictions will affect the SNAP benefits of roughly 700,000 Americans. In Rhode Island, the number of people impacted is placed at approximately 7,000.
During the event marking the release of the local hunger report, Schiff and other officials – including members of the state’s congressional delegation – said the likely impact of the federal rule change will be to increase demand for assistance through the Food Bank and its network.
“The first round of SNAP cuts are scheduled to begin April 2020, leaving 7,000 RIers without food assistance,” the Food Bank wrote on Twitter last week. “Many will seek help from the Food Bank and its member agencies, increasing the numbers we need to serve.”
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue pointed to the low national unemployment rate in making the case for the policy change, and framed it as part of “moving more able-bodied Americans to self sufficiency.”
In reality, this callous and ill-conceived move ignores the difficulties so many working Americans face in the modern economy. Today, simply being employed is no guarantee of economic or food security.
As Schiff noted during the report’s release: “This has been the change that we have seen over the last few years as the economy has improved – more and more of the people helped by the Food Bank are actually working families.”
During the same event, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed pointed out that the Food Bank serves approximately 53,000 households across the state – roughly 6,000 more than it did a decade ago. He and Schiff both said food insecurity is tied to health issues, which carry significant personal and financial costs.
“This not just an issue of morality and decency … this is dollars and cents,” the senator said. “Pay now or pay later, and when you pay later, it will be much greater.”
We join local leaders in calling for a reconsideration of the SNAP policy change. More broadly, we urge our elected officials to remember the harsh realities so many struggling Rhode Islanders face – and to focus on policy approaches that help ensure the food security of the most vulnerable among us.
More than any other time of year, the holiday season serves to remind us of the blessings we enjoy. They are most prominently symbolized by the bounties we share with loved ones over dinner tables.
There are so many ways to share those blessings and bounties, and we also urge all members of our communities to do so through donations to the Food Bank and other organizations who share its mission. It is through extending a helping hand to those most in need that we may, together, best demonstrate our common values and shared commitment to the season’s spirit.