MLK Center sees rising demand for food assistance: How they're attacking the problem

NEWPORT ― Currently, the Rhode Island Community Food Bank serves 63,000 people per month, an increase of 20% over the previous year. The MLK Center in Newport, which runs the largest food bank in the county and receives about 40% of its food from the RI Community Food Bank, has seen an even sharper increase in clients compared to last year.

Executive Director Heather Hole Strout told The Daily News the MLK Center’s food pantry is seeing about a 25% increase compared to the same time last year. In addition to this overall increase, she added, “Our holiday numbers, our holiday help where we provide Thanksgiving and Christmas food to people, we’re seeing those numbers at about a 20-25% increase as well and we’re not even done registering people.” She anticipates the food pantry will provide about 1,800 people with Thanksgiving meals this year, up from 1,363 last year.

One huge reason the MLK Center is seeing those numbers go up is the increased price of food and energy as winter approaches – from July 2021 to July 2022, according to the RI Community Food Bank’s 2022 Status Report on Hunger in Rhode Island, food costs in Rhode Island went up by 13%. Home heating oil costs are up by 43%.

The report shows food insecurity is now three times more prevalent than before the pandemic in Rhode Island and indicates nearly one in three Rhode Island households are now unable to meet their basic food needs. For families with children and people of color, the number is even higher.

Data found in the report is gathered through the RI Life Index, which surveys a random sample of more than 2,000 households in the state. It is an initiative of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island and the Brown University School of Public Health.

“Since August we’ve really started to see a spike-up,” said Strout. “At the beginning of Covid we saw the biggest numbers that we’ve ever seen for a couple months, and then stimulus money started coming through, and the unemployment, and all of the things that were put in place to help protect people. We saw it level off and we actually saw some decline during the late part of 2020 and into a lot of 2021.”

The MLK Community Center is seeing an increased in need from the agency's food pantry services at the end of 2022.
The MLK Community Center is seeing an increased in need from the agency's food pantry services at the end of 2022.

However, around August the numbers started to rise again, and remained high through September, October, and November. Speaking to The Daily News on the Monday before Thanksgiving, Strout said, “Today we had the busiest day that we’ve seen in our food pantry we think ever … We only have data going back so far, but we believe it’s the busiest we’ve ever had.”

“We have a four-hour window of time that the food pantry is open,” she elaborated. “In four hours today, 115 people came shopping, which is a significant number for the size of our pantry and for, you know, just keeping food on the shelves – when people come shopping they get two weeks of food, so that’s a lot of food that went out the door today. I can’t really put a price tag on it, but it’s in the thousands of dollars.”

Seniors, children and Hispanic community are the food bank's main recipients

Within Newport’s diverse population, many of the people facing food insecurity come from the most vulnerable segments of society: children, senior citizens, and immigrant communities.

Referring to the MLK Center’s annual report, Strout indicated 29% of the people served by the pantry are seniors, 30% are children, and 29% self-identify as Hispanic, with many of those people speaking English as a second language or speaking only their native Spanish.

She said that last figure, 29% of the food pantry’s clients identifying as Hispanic, has skyrocketed over the past five years. Asked about the MLK Center’s ability to provide for undocumented or under-documented communities within that Spanish-speaking population who are not eligible for programs like SNAP and LIHEAP because they do not have citizenship documentation, Strout stressed the pantry was open to all.

“We don’t even ask during our intake what someone’s documentation status is because we don’t want to own that information,” she stated. “We believe that anyone who needs food should get food – it does not matter why, or who they are, or where they’re from. We’re all part of the community, so that’s what we believe here at the center.”

“One thing we try to do is make sure we have cultural awareness and that we are meeting the needs of the people we’re helping by providing foods that they want to eat,” she continued. “One of our strategic goals is making sure we have a selection in our food pantry of different ethnic foods to make sure we’re making everyone feel welcome and respected in their culture.”

Turning her attention to Newport County’s senior citizens, especially those who lived on fixed incomes or are watching their retirement accounts take big hits as the national economy teeters on the brink of a possible recession, Strout said, “We’re seeing a really big increase also in the number of seniors we’re helping; I think the economic status right now in our world is really affecting seniors significantly.”

Reflecting on the past few months since August, when the number of clients coming to the pantry started to spike noticeably, she said, “We see people every day, we’ve really seen them a lot lately, people who are coming to get help for the first time that say, ‘I can’t believe I’m here. I never imagined I’d be in this place.’”

MLK Center runs a variety of programs to ensure Newport County residents don’t go hungry

The MLK Center’s food pantry is open to the public every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they have a mobile food pantry that goes into neighborhoods in Newport, Middletown, Portsmouth, Tiverton and Little Compton to ensure those with transportation or mobility issues can still access the exact same supplies as on-site shoppers.

In addition to produce, eggs, meat, vegetables, and staple foods like flour, salt, sugar, and cereal, the food pantry also provides households with basic necessities like laundry detergent and hygiene products.

In addition to the mobile pantry on Tuesdays and Thursdays, volunteers come to the onsite pantry to “shop” for and then deliver two-week supplies of food for 125 homebound seniors and disabled people through the “Food to Friends” program.

Strout encouraged anybody who is worried about putting food on the table to avail themselves of the MLK Center’s programs, saying:

“We make it very simple – we have a belief that nobody is going to come ask for help if they don’t need help, so there’s nothing that really qualifies or disqualifies people from coming, it’s really open to anybody who needs the help. We do have to do an intake process the first time and that’s just to help us with grant funding because when we apply for grants they ask a series of questions, and they just have to show proof of household, so if you’re registering that you have five people living in your household we just ask people to show just have to show a piece of mail or something with the names of those people in their household so we can make sure we’re serving as many people as we can.”

RI Community Food Bank is advocating for food-insecure Rhode Islanders and working to ensure a food supply through the winter

RI Community Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff pointed out part of the recent spike in food insecurity is connected to the conclusion of a number of aid programs provided by the federal government during the pandemic, including free breakfast and lunch programs for all public school students.

“(Food) is the only thing we charge kids for,” Schiff told The Daily News. “We don’t charge them for their books, we don’t charge them to go see the school nurse, we don’t charge them to take the school bus, but we charge them for school meals…What we learned during Covid is it’s much more efficient to just make school breakfast and school lunch free for all students.”

Rhode Island Community Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff inside the food bank's facility.
Rhode Island Community Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff inside the food bank's facility.

Public school breakfast and lunch are particularly crucial to some of the aforementioned immigrant communities which generally lack access to citizenship-dependent benefit programs, alleviating some financial pressure on families struggling to get by without any assistance to stabilize their budgets as food and energy prices continue to rise.

Schiff explained the food bank brings in its food in several ways, including private and corporate donations, raising money to then purchase food wholesale at a very large volume, and a national USDA program that purchases food from US farmers, manufacturers and distributors and provides that food to food banks.

He also said the food bank supply chain is experiencing stress in a couple of different ways. By way of example, he explained, “We’ll purchase an entire truckload of rice, and then we bring it into the food bank, and then it gets to (places like) MLK. That rice is more expensive today than it was a year ago. So not only is that we need more food, it’s that as we’re purchasing food now, every truckload is more expensive.”

He said another factor is that the USDA program has been affected by supply chain issues. “It’s been much less of that USDA food than normal,” he said. “The head of the USDA just a few weeks ago made a commitment of an extra billion dollars to this program… but that’s going to take some time, it’s not showing up here in a  truck tomorrow.”

He said the additional help from the USDA would be a huge help when it arrived in the spring, but in the meantime, the food bank is, “nervous and concerned about this winter, because this is the crucial time; we’re not getting as much USDA food, food costs more, and we’re seeing a lot more people come in for help. We’re just going to have to find ways to bring in as much food as possible and get it to places like MLK Center.”

Strout also spoke about the possibility of the MLK Center being a little strained this winter, explaining:

“During the holiday season is when we see a lot of donations and food drives come in. If this spike continues into January, February, March, April, we’ll have to go back to the drawing board and figure out how we’re going to meet the need...We have worked hard as a nonprofit to build a 6-9 month reserve fund, and if we had to go into that, we would, of course. We’ll do whatever it takes to meet the needs of the community, but it’s always the hope that unless it's an emergency you don’t have to touch that…but the reality is that very well could happen this year.”

This article originally appeared on Newport Daily News: Newport County’s food bank facing increasing demand