KINGSTON, R.I. — June 1, 2006 — If you want to understand the issues that cause an increasing number of Americans to go hungry, and if you want to do something about it, the place to be is the University of Rhode Island.
“There are no other undergraduate academic programs in the country on hunger,” said Kathleen Gorman, director of the Feinstein Center for a Hunger Free America at URI. Students at URI can earn a minor in hunger studies, and the University’s introductory hunger course is popular among students in many disciplines. More than 1,000 students have enrolled in hunger courses or participated in hunger-related service projects.
Launched just six years ago, URI’s Feinstein hunger center has focused much of its efforts on the role of government in assuring that all citizens have a means to feed their families. One of the focal points has been working to ensure that the people who qualify for Food Stamps take advantage of them. “These programs are available, but not everyone who qualifies knows about them and participates,” said Gorman, who won URI’s 2006 Outreach Award for her work in the community. “We know that people who participate in the Food Stamp program are healthier because they can afford more nutritious food.”
In the last five years, the Feinstein hunger center has been awarded $1.5 million in state and federal funds to manage the Rhode Island Department of Human Services’ Food Stamp Outreach program. As part of that outreach, students from URI and other local colleges have been trained to visit food pantries, soup kitchens, and elderly housing complexes to educate clients about the Food Stamp program and help them apply. These efforts provide much needed assistance to low-income residents while at the same time providing educational opportunities for students from across the state.
In addition, the recently established Partnership on Food, Hunger and Nutrition, which includes faculty from URI’s Human Development, Nursing, and Nutrition and Food Sciences programs, has expanded the Hunger Center’s mission and provided opportunities for students to explore how hunger, poverty, poor health and nutrition are all interrelated. Students gain additional experience through their participation in internships at homeless shelters, food pantries, meal sites, clinics, and other organizations that work with low-income children, families and seniors.
One increasingly challenging component of the hunger equation in Rhode Island is housing prices. “Rhode Islanders on restricted incomes spend so much money on rent and other necessities like health care, transportation and heating costs that they’re forced to scrimp on food,” Gorman said. As a result, 12 percent of the state’s households have trouble getting access to adequate and nutritious food on a regular basis.
With housing prices rising exponentially in South Kingstown in particular, URI’s Feinstein hunger center is taking an important step toward eradicating hunger by launching a Hunger-Free South Kingstown campaign this summer.
“There are a wealth of resources at URI and throughout South Kingstown – student groups, community groups, churches, businesses – many of whom do food drives on their own, but they need to be coordinated to be effective at meeting the needs of the hungry in a consistent way year round,” explained Gorman. “If we can get all these groups working together with the Jonnycake Center, I’m sure we can meet the needs of every hungry family in town.”
The initiative will be launched with a grant from VISTA/Americorps and will begin with a needs assessment of the Jonnycake Center and a determination of what other campus and community organizations are already doing.
URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences is also heading up an effort to feed the hungry. This summer the College aims to grow 100,000 pounds of squash and corn that will be donated to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. Additional acreage has been committed to the effort this year to more than double the 40,000 pounds of produce grown in each of the last two years by URI Master Gardeners, students and others. A team of students will be recruited in the fall to harvest the crops, and staff in URI’s Nutrition and Food Science Department are developing recipes for healthy meals using the produce.