New URI study examines response, challenges faced by state agencies, local organizations in addressing food insecurity amid pandemic

Research will be discussed as part of Rhode Island Food System Summit, Jan. 20

KINGSTON, R.I. – Jan. 14, 2021 – The unprecedented public health challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic have had far reaching effects across the nation. Beyond concerns about community spread, access to testing and treatment, and an overwhelmed health care system, the pandemic has exacerbated previous existing social and economic inequities impacting the most basic of human needs. Realizing this, researchers at the University of Rhode Island began a comprehensive study to examine the extent of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food access in Rhode Island.

The project, led by Assistant Professor Sarah Amin in the College of Health SciencesDepartment of Nutrition and Food Sciences, began in August with a series of in-depth interviews of 25 state and local community stakeholders. Amin, who also serves as the director of Community Nutrition Education, worked with URI Associate Professor Alison Tovar,  Kate Balestracci and Heidi Hetzler of URI’s Community Nutrition Education Program, graduate students Fatima Tobar Santamaria and Margaret Samson, University of Connecticut Professor Kim Gans and Margaret Read of Share Our Strength. The team interviewed representatives from state agencies, nonprofit organizations, food pantries, Health Equity Zones and others to better understand state and local response to food access and food insecurity during the pandemic.

The research, while still in the early stages of analysis, is particularly timely coming on the heels of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank 2020 Status Report on Hunger in Rhode Island. The report found that one in four Rhode Island households suffer from food insecurity.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dire impact on food access in our state. The recent report issued by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank indicated that food insecurity in Rhode Island has reached record levels in 2020,” said Amin. “The potential for this rising food insecurity to severely worsen existing health disparities is profound.”

Preliminary findings suggest that organizations are struggling to meet the food needs of Rhode Islanders for several reasons including: rising job loss/unemployment among Rhode Islanders leading to increased need; a lack of culturally relevant foods and services; insufficient resources (i.e., funding, personal protective equipment, staff, technology, time); and the increased need has served to exacerbate existing food access challenges connected to transportation and food storage needs.

Additionally, many community stakeholders cited that social distancing and isolation experienced by their staff as well as community members heightened the challenges to get food to Rhode Islanders.

“For many of the stakeholders we spoke with, learning how to operate in this new reality was a challenge. Many of these organizations and agencies and their staff work very closely with the communities and people they serve, including those residing in high-risk populations,” said graduate assistant Tobar Santamaria, a master’s degree candidate who served as a research assistant on the project. “They suddenly found themselves working to respond to an urgent need that was increasing rapidly while also attempting to learn and adhere to new public health guidelines in order to keep everyone safe.”

Despite these challenges, 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.

In one instance, a local Health Equity Zone created a grocery certificate program working with another local nonprofit organization to assist those in the Spanish-speaking community – which has included not only providing certificates to help with food needs, but also a staff member able to assist them in their native language to increase their level of comfort participating in the program.

“Despite the many challenges during this time, the way state agencies and community organizations have come together to help meet the needs of the community has been a real bright spot,” said Tovar. “However, there is still much work to be done. Food insecurity continues to be a rising concern in the state, and a prolonged economic recovery will only serve to perpetuate that well into the future.”

Tovar and Tobar Santamaria will present and discuss the preliminary findings of the research as part of the University of Rhode Island 2021 Rhode Island Food System Summit, “Taking the Lead: Improving Food Access in a Global Pandemic” on Wednesday, Jan. 20. They will also discuss future analysis and directions for continuing this research. The event will be live-streamed. Registration is required.