‘The crisis revealed the crisis,’ 2021 Rhode Island Food System Summit focuses on food insecurity during COVID-19 pandemic

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URI students and staff distribute USDA Farmers to Families food boxes this fall
Combatting food insecurity: URI students and staff distribute USDA Farmers to Families food boxes this fall. (URI photo/Nora Lewis)

KINGSTON, R.I. – Jan. 25, 2021 – During the past year, food insecurity in the United States has reached record levels. According to a report issued by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank last fall, one in four Rhode Island households lacks adequate food, up from one in ten just a few years ago. The steep incline, which is being felt across the nation has been driven, in part, by the COVID-19 global pandemic and its accompanying economic depression. Understanding the role that each of us plays in addressing this growing crisis, the University of Rhode Island convened government, academic, business, and community partners on Jan. 20 as part of its fifth annual Rhode Island Food System Summit.

The virtual summit, “Taking the Lead: Improving Food Access in a Global Pandemic,” featured speakers from across the regional food and health ecosystem. Panels focused on the role of higher education and URI in addressing food security as well as state government response to the growing crisis in Rhode Island.

Approximately 2400 boxes of food were distributed
Approximately 2400 boxes of food were distributed to members of the University community and more than a dozen local nonprofits. (URI photo/Nora Lewis)

“This year’s summit comes at a crucial time as Rhode Islanders and people around the country are struggling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just last week the new administration announced it would be taking additional steps to combat food insecurity and help families put food on the table,” said Katharine Flynn, executive director of URI’s Business Engagement Center. “In our role as the state’s flagship land and sea grant research university, we felt it was important to bring people together to discuss the challenges we face as well as how we can work together to develop solutions to food access issues in our state.”

Keynote speaker Viraj Puri, chief executive officer of Gotham Greens, spoke about how his company promotes economic growth and opportunity in urban low-income communities as well as partnerships to help combat food waste and food insecurity. He discussed the complexity of food insecurity, some of the systemic issues involved such as economic development, education and poverty alleviation, as well as the importance of learning about these issues as a first step in making a positive impact.

Noting that Gotham Greens has created almost 400 jobs for working-class people in historically diverse communities in the Providence area Puri stated, “One of the biggest, most positive impacts we can make in our communities is to create jobs. Paying our employees a good, living wage with benefits can help to revitalize urban communities.”

Across college campuses, food insecurity has often been referred to as a hidden epidemic, affecting roughly one-third of college students prior to the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. Panelists discussed efforts on URI’s campuses such as Rhody Outpost, the campus food pantry; the Students First Fund, which helps provide emergency aid to students in need; and the Share a Swipe for Hope meal-sharing program as well as other efforts to help meet the needs of students who are food insecure.

Pierre St-Germain, URI’s director of Dining Services, discussed his department’s response to the pandemic, not only in terms of serving students on campus, but also a partnership between URI and the Rhode Island Office of Healthy Aging, which saw the university produce and distribute more than 25,000 meals across the state last spring to the elderly, immunocompromised or food insecure.

In addition to the panel discussions, URI Associate Professor of Nutrition of Food Sciences Alison Tovar and graduate student Fatima Tobar Santamaria presented some of the preliminary findings of recent research led by Assistant Professor Sarah Amin, which included in-depth interviews food access stakeholders to better understand their experience in meeting the food needs of struggling Rhode Islanders during the pandemic.

Overall, Tovar explained, the problems that existed prior to the pandemic were exacerbated over the course of the past year, further compounding the disparities between lower income communities, communities of color and the homebound while also affecting new populations finding themselves food insecure for the first time due to the economic downturn. “The crisis revealed the crisis,” Tovar said, echoing the response of one of the study’s respondents.

Despite the challenges uncovered as part of the research, stakeholders also noted a number of successes including: enhanced collaboration; more effective communication among stakeholders and the communities they serve; as well as the development of new initiatives to support Rhode Islanders’ food access needs.

Many of these successes and challenges were reiterated by state and local officials during the morning’s final panel on how state government is addressing Rhode Island’s growing food security issues in light of COVID-19.

While each of the panelists and speakers over the course of the day agreed there was much more work to be done, throughout the pandemic and into the future to address food insecurity, they applauded the collaboration and coordination that has taken place.

“The Rhode Island food community proved remarkably resilient and strong during the pandemic. That was both as a result of coordination at the state and city level but also among a range of community groups stepping up and pivoting their mission and collaborating to meet the different kinds of challenges we were facing,” said Nell Abernathy, policy director in the office of Gov. Gina Raimondo.

The Rhode Island Food System Summit is supported by the URI Business Engagement Center, the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences, the URI College of Health Sciences, the Rhode Island Department of Health and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. The full program may be found online at the RI Food Center at URI website or via the URI Harrington School of Communication and Media YouTube channel.