Hunger on the rise in Rhode Island; food bank points to UHIP problems

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s leader says new customers continue coming in the door seeking food, in part because of malfunctions with the state’s UHIP computer system that is delaying or completely losing applications for food assistance.

Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff made the comments at an event to announce the latest edition of its annual hunger report. He said the food bank is currently serving 57,000 Rhode Islanders each month, up from 33,000 a decade ago.

“They’re coming, many for the first time, because they were on SNAP and suddenly, they went to the grocery store, were in line to purchase food and found out … that they had no more benefits on their EBT card,” Schiff told reporters. “We attribute it to UHIP.”

Just last week, Eyewitness News reported that thousands of applications for benefits were lost by the UHIP computer system.

The report released Monday by the Food Bank cites a U.S. Census Bureau survey for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It says 6.1 percent of households in Rhode Island reported “very low food security,” or hunger, from 2014 to 2016. That’s up from 4.6 percent from 2011 to 2013. It also found 12.8 percent of Rhode Island households are living in poverty.

Read the Report: Hunger in RI »

Despite those numbers, the report found SNAP – short for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – enrollment dropped by more than 12 percent from 2016 to 2017.

Schiff said the drop is from UHIP’s problems, not because fewer Rhode Islanders are hungry.

Deloitte, the company that built the UHIP system, has credited the state tens of millions of dollars and is covering the costs of fines related to the problems. Gov. Gina Raimondo has said she would consider taking legal action against Deloitte.

“It is frustrating,” said U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, who attended the announcement. “I hope that we get the … malfunctions straightened out. Because this plan is intended to help people.”

Whitehouse and Sen. Jack Reed, also a Democrat, bemoaned the proposed cuts to SNAP and other federal benefits by leaders in the Republican-controlled Congress. The cuts were proposed as part of a non-binding budget framework, so it’s unclear if they will pass.

Reed argued the proposed “block grants” for states would only serve to cut the benefits provided to Rhode Islanders.