SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Sylvia Blanda knows well the local impact of a recent report that 25 percent of Rhode Island households are worried about lacking adequate food because of the pandemic and accompanying lockdowns.
She runs two take-out dinner programs — one in Peace Dale and the other in Westerly — that have seen a 140% increase since October in people seeking these once-a-week meals, given away free, without questions asked.
“It’s just astronomical the number of people we need to service,” she said during an interview this week with The Independent.
It has so much moved her and others in the local meals program run through Peace Dale Congregational Church that they are taking on a partner to expand so meals are available two days a week, she said.
Peace Dale Congregational’s “Dinner Table” program is in its fifth year. Until COVID-19 hit, gathered in person to share a meal. After restrictions became necessary, the program completely shut down the free Wednesday night meals.
It resumed them in October, but for take-out only — and with deliveries to people when needed. Numbers soared from an average of 70 per night to over 170, she said.
The same occurred in Westerly at an ad hoc collaborative of community volunteers running a program called the “Supper Table.” It has been operating for 11 years, but she said expanding its services is not immediately planned.
The statistics for Rhode Island regarding people fearing they lack enough food are large and looming.
The Rhode Island Community Food Bank 2020 Status Report Hunger in Rhode Island reported recently that Researchers found that 25 percent of households were worried about having adequate food.
This is the highest level of food insecurity recorded in Rhode Island in 20 years, according to the report. Before the pandemic, food insecurity was on the decline, from a high point of 14.7 percent in 2010 down to 9.1 percent in 2019, according to the report.
The United Way of Rhode Island’s 2-1-1 hotline received nearly 60,000 calls for food assistance between March and August 2020, a 77% increase compared to the same period in 2019, according to the report.
Before the pandemic, the Rhode Island Community Food Bank served 53,700 people monthly through its statewide network of 159 member agencies. There was an immediate surge in demand for food assistance after the outbreak of COVID-19, it said.
In April, these sites and member agencies of the food bank served 67,900 people and the number keeps growing.
To meet the growing need, the Food Bank increased its food distribution by 1.6 million pounds (45 percent), including 330,000 meals supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to the food bank.
Now with these growing numbers showing an immediate local impact, Blanda said she and the Roman Catholic group, Society of St Vincent dePaul, which has a local affiliate based out of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Wakefield, will work together to expand Peace Dale Congregational’s weekly program.
From the kitchen at PDCC, Blanda and one group will continue to serve take-out dinners on Wednesday evenings while beginning in January the Society of St Vincent dePaul will come on Friday evenings to provide meals.
Craig Marciniak, who works with the Society of St Vincent dePaul and is helping plan the upcoming meals offering, said that his organization is like others in the state either working alone or with partners to help those in need of food.
“Families are making hard decisions whether to pay bills or to eat. The cost of food has increased, and people are not able to find employment,” he said.
In addition, many local children are not getting the necessary nutrition while some of the schools are not in session and able to provide the free lunch program, he added.
“Our goal in becoming involved with the Dinner Table program is to try to help supplement the wonderful job Sylvia is doing. In just a short time the dinners requested have grown from 70 to 170,” he said.
He said that parishioners of Saint Francis of Assisi have joined with the Society of St Vincent dePaul to volunteer for the planning, cooking and fund raising for the dinners.
The Rev. Henry Bodah, pastor of Saint Francic of Assisi, praised the efforts both his parishioners and the Society of St Vincent dePaul.
“The Society of St Vincent de Paul is an international organization of Catholics whose vocation is to help people in trouble, and our parishioners who belong to this society have done remarkable work in service to people in our area who are in financial straits,” he said.
“I cannot thank them enough for all the work they do for people in this area of South County and we at St Francis parish are happy to support them financially and spiritually,” he added.
Various local businesses, including Belmont Market, Panera Bread and the South Kingstown Rotary Club have also helped to underwrite costs for the meals program either with direct donations of food or financial support.
With these donations, the church’s estimated budget for food and materials is about $14,000 for just once a week and it will need more donations when going to twice a week, she said, echoing an appeal to community members who would like to donate.
She said that they can contact Peace Dale Congregational for more information about making a donation.
In addition, she said, the church also picks up the added costs of providing a place to make the meals, electricity, kitchen equipment – including a recent new refrigerator – and other fixed operating costs.
The Rev. Fred Evenson is pastor of Peace Dale Congregational. He said it is the church’s mission to help the hungry and the homeless, a pledge made certain by its donation of a parsonage on North Road for the continuing support the Welcome House shelter for the homeless and those in transition.
“It’s surprising and it’s sad that so many people are in need of basic necessities like food right now,” he told The Independent this week.
He said that he is thankful for the scores of people in his own church that support and staff the program as well as the ecumenical support from nearby Saint Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church and Society of St Vincent dePaul.
“You are motivated by a love of God and for your neighbors and you are sharing your love through food,” he said. “It’s pretty impressive. I’m amazed that we can feed that many people on a weekly basis.”
“It’s love made real. It’s what Christmas is all about,” the pastor added.