WASHINGTON, DC -- In an effort to provide hunger relief and nutritional assistance to the most vulnerable Americans who have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Biden Administration unveiled a series of measures to help feed the hungry.  U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) hailed President Biden’s executive orders to extend federal nutrition assistance programs to help millions of Americans who have become unemployed because of COVID-19 and increase benefits under the Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) program by 15 percent.  Reed says this will help deliver additional federal assistance for struggling Rhode Islanders, particularly households with children who have been unable to access free or reduced-price school meals.  Rhode Island was one of the first states to establish a P-EBT program and has provided over $30 million in benefits to approximately 60,000 Rhode Island families.

Reed notes the Biden Administration’s latest action to address hunger nationwide builds on a recent down payment by Congress to boost monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payments by 15 percent and provide new funding for food banks and school and child care meals.  Reed also backed key provisions in the $900 billion ‘coronabus’ law that added $100 million for SNAP state administrative expenses nationwide, as well as $5 million to add additional retailers to online SNAP, including for farmers markets and direct to consumer sales.  He also successfully backed language to provide $400 million for food banks through the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and $175 million to the law for nutrition services for seniors, such as Meals on Wheels.

SNAP helps individuals, families, and seniors afford a basic diet, generates business for retailers, and boosts local economies.  In Rhode Island, SNAP helps provide nutrition assistance to approximately 152,000 people and the fifteen percent increase will mean an additional $25 per person per month in the Ocean State, where the average monthly SNAP benefit is $144 and the average cost per meal is $1.46 according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

“As COVID-19 cases surged, so have food pantry lines.  Feeding the hungry has grown more difficult during this pandemic and more Americans than ever are turning to food banks for help, many for the first time.  This COVID-19 crisis has now become a hunger crisis and the federal government must do its part to feed the hungry.  This isn’t something food pantries can do all on their own.  Increasing SNAP payments and extending federal nutrition assistance to America’s neediest children and seniors is a needed investment and Congress must follow through with additional resources to help Americans stay safe and health,” said Senator Reed.

According to the anti-hunger non-profit Feeding America, for every meal a food bank provides the community, SNAP produces nine.  And because SNAP benefits are spent quickly in the local economy, they serve as an effective form of economic stimulus during a downturn, generating about $1.70 in the economy for every $1 invested in SNAP.  In Rhode Island, this has translated into $244.2 million distributed through SNAP last year, generating $415.1 million in economic activity.

Before the pandemic, more than 35 million people struggled with food insecurity. Now that number tops 50 million people, according to a recent report by Feeding America.

The Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s 2020 Status Report on Hunger found that about 25 percent of households report being food insecure, up from just 9.1 percent between 2017 and 2019.  This marks the highest level of food insecurity that state has seen in over 20 years.

Meanwhile, preliminary findings by researchers at the University of Rhode Island (URI) highlight several ongoing challenges to meet the food needs of Rhode Islanders, including: rising unemployment; insufficient resources such as funding, staffing, and PPE for stakeholders that help serve people in need; and a lack of capacity to respond to the increased need, such as food storage and transportation challenges.