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The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center – Feed a Friend Food Pantry

The Challenge

Food security for all residents of Newport County.

1 in 8 people experience persistent food insecurity in Rhode Island. RI Community Food Bank study in 2016 cited that wages have gone up 5% but food costs increased 15%, so food insecurity has increased in Newport County residents from 2013-2018.

The Approach

To provide a judgment-free food pantry and other hunger services to the residents of Newport County, RI, the MLK Community Center’s Feed a Friend Food Pantry provides complimentary perishable and non-perishable food, toiletries and household goods for Newport County residents to shop at their discretion. One of more than a dozen volunteers guides clients through the “client choice” pantry, helping them make healthy selections for their family, advising them to other items that may be restricted due to low supply or personal dietary needs. Baby food/formula and diapers, as well as pet food are also available.

By The Numbers

  • Meals served in 2018: 255,324
  • People educated about healthy cooking and nutrition in 2018: 63
  • Mobile market pantry events (averaging 84 people per event): 9
  • Meals delivered to 145 home-bound residents in 2018: 1,113

Ensure Food Security for All Rhode Islanders

Since it started in 1982 the MLK Community Center Feed a Friend Food Pantry has fed people in the community. This work remains at the core of its mission.

Program Description

Newport County residents are measurably better off as a result of work done by the MLK Community Center Feed a Friend Food Pantry.

  • From 2013-2018, there was an increase in 252 new families served, from 1,204 to 1,456 families, including 1,089 new individuals. That resulted in an increase of 111,234 meals served – from 144,000 in 2013 to 255,234 in 2018. This is a marked difference in demand for food services in a community of about 25,000 permanent residents, which is largely known for its wealth and tourism.
  • As the demand for these hunger services rises, the center has widened its scope. It has developed other auxiliary programs, including the Mobile Food Pantry (nine events in 2018, as a first year pilot program; averaging 84 people per event; and Food 2 Friends food delivery to home-bound residents each week (1,113 deliveries to 145 individuals in 119 families, up from 410 deliveries to 130 individuals in 84 families in 2013).
  • The center also has been forced to widen its base of donors and resources as demand for its services rises. It accepts donations and purchases food from business and non-profits such as the RI Community Food Bank, Walmart, Stop & Shop, Shaw’s, BJ’s, Panera Bread, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Liberty Donuts, Green Grocer and A Market, an increase of 4 new business donors since 2013.
  • With the center focusing more on client health, and the broad demand for its services increasing, it is spending more to supply the pantry with healthy items that it might not receive with donations, including more fresh produce. In 2018, the center spent $135,000 on food for the pantry, compared to $36,241 in 2013.
  • The center did a renovation six years ago and expanded the size of the pantry by 50%, adding a 15-foot walk-in freezer. Donors now are more inclined to make larger donations (from 144 frozen turkeys in 2013 to 513 in 2018.). The pantry also was given a slight face lift last year with a fresh coat of paint, new shelving, produce baskets and signage.
  • Pantry Packs are a meal prep kit, comparable to Blue Apron: everything to prepare one specific meal comes together in a kit, including the ingredients, spices and recipe. The goal is to show guests how to use pantry items in recipes. This is very popular, as many clients don’t know how to prepare some of the donated ingredients that the pantry receives, like kohlrabi or lentils. Spices are also very expensive and can limit a client’s potential to make a healthy meal.
  • At the holidays, the pantry offers Thanksgiving and Christmas “baskets,” including a turkey for every table, multiple side dishes (like stuffing, carrots, butternut squash and potatoes) as well as produce, eggs, shelf-stable milk and the ingredients to make one pie. In 2018, 1,228 individuals in 463 families took advantage of this service at Thanksgiving; 1,471 individuals in 479 families at Christmas. This was also a significant increase from 2013, where 185 Thanksgiving baskets and 181 Christmas baskets were given to 609 individuals. The center changed this program for 2018, making it a “client choice” process, which received positive feedback from clients, volunteers and staff.
  • The breakfast program offered through the pantry is the only breakfast meal site in Newport County, and it is the only hunger program at the center that has seen slightly fewer clients. In 2013, it served more than 10,500 meals to 325 individuals; in 2018, 9,998 meals were served to 264 clients.
  • Clients are also offered optional weekly cooking classes and twice weekly LivFit nutrition classes, which provide instruction on how to prepare healthy meals using pantry ingredients. The center hired a registered dietician on a contract basis to provide this counsel. 31 people attended in 2015 (first year); 68 attended in 2017; 63 people in 2018.
  • In 2018, the center surveyed its clientele, who are: 57.4 % female; 40.8% white, 15.5% black, 23.4% Hispanic; 23.9% aged 25-44, 21.3% aged 45-64, 13.7% aged 6-11, 11.4% aged 0-5, 11.2% aged 65+; 28.4% reported $0 income, 52.5% reported their income was less than 100% of the Federal Poverty Level.

Future Plans

Based on a study conducted by the RI Community Food Bank, which discovered that clients want options in their food choices in order to provide healthy meals for their families, the center has made a substantial effort to focus on client health. It plans to offer unlimited produce in the pantry, fresh/frozen meats, local Rhody Fresh milk (as opposed to shelf stable milk it once offered), eggs and bread.

This Rhode Island Story was prepared by Annie Sherman.