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Reduction in food aid being felt at pantries

WESTERLY — The sluggish economy, a decrease in federal assistance and the onset of cold weather have created a kind of virtual perfect storm at the Jonnycake Center.

“It’s been crazy,” said Elizabeth Pasqualini, executive director. “We’ve been busy all this year.”

She noted that the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, reduced its payments on Nov. 1, sending program recipients to the food pantry sooner in the month. Payments had been raised in 2009 by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but those funds ran out on Oct. 31.

More than one in four Rhode Island households, or about 180,000 residents, receive SNAP benefits, said Andrew Schiff, chief executive officer of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, and about 68,000 residents are served each month at the state’s emergency food pantries.

“That’s a high level,” he noted.

For a family of four, the benefit has dropped by $36 a month. “Generally speaking, it’s like a 10 percent cut,” Schiff said.

Add up the individual cuts around the state, he said, and benefits to Rhode Island residents will be cut by $20 million over the next year.

“That’s more than the whole budget of a food bank,” he said. “More people are going to go hungry.”

Schiff said he was concerned that the state’s food banks may not be able to take up the slack.

The Rhode Island Community Food Bank, which distributes food to food banks around the state, including the Jonnycake Center, is facing its own challenges this year, Schiff noted, because donations are down.

In the past, supermarkets donated food that would otherwise be wasted. However, that source has been drying up, he said, because “the food industry has gotten more and more efficient.”

Schiff is also concerned about further cuts to SNAP that Congress may make. He’s been working with Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, he said, and “they’re trying to do everything they can to fight those cuts.” According to the state food bank, more than 15 percent of Rhode Island’s housholds are unable to buy enough food, which is the highest percentage of any New England state. Five years ago there were 58,000 such households, and now there are 66,500.

Hourly wages among the working poor have declined by $1.19 an hour since 2006, when adjusted for inflation, according to the food bank’s annual report for 2013. For these and other reasons, the state’s network of food banks serves about 1.5 million meals every month.

At the Jonnycake Center, that translates into about 1,000 customers a month, or between 350 and 370 families, Pasqualini said. The majority of them, 80 percent, come from Westerly, with the remaining families from Hopkinton, Richmond and Charlestown. By providing families with one week of groceries per month, Jonnycake provided 246,215 meals to residents of the four towns over the last year.

The slump in donations has affected the Jonnycake food pantry as well as the state food bank. Only 19 percent of the food they distributed this past year was donated, while the other 81 percent was purchased. Some food has been purchased for as little as 7 cents a pound from the food bank, but those low prices are available less often, Pasqualini noted. More often now, the Jonnycake Center finds itself buying more food at higher prices, including market value, Pasqualini said.

“It’s a scary thing,” she said. “Every dollar doesn’t go as far.”

So far, no one who qualifies for the food pantry at the Jonnycake Center has been turned away, but Pasqualini said she is beginning to get concerned about the increased need and the decreased recources.

“Food continues to be an issue for our community,” she noted.

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