Rhode Island Foundation distributes $20 million in ARPA funds at state’s behest

The money was used to support hundreds of community service organizations

By: - April 27, 2023 3:00 am

Jordan Hiatt, of Warwick, a staffer at the West Bank Community Action Program Food Pantry in Warwick, wrangles palettes before restocking shelves Wednesday. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

WARWICK — Lori Burnstingle perused the aisles of the West Bay Community Action Food pantry Wednesday. She grabbed a can of tomatoes here, a root vegetable there. 

The volunteer who also receives pantry services recalled a time not so long ago, before the pantry received a $150,000 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Support grant from the Rhode Island Foundation.

“There was not really much to speak of,” Burnstingle said as she scanned the available shelves. “Now with this grant, we’re getting more fresh produce, more canned stocks.”

With that program support in mind, the Rhode Island Foundation and state leaders chose West Bay Community Action as the site of a press conference Wednesday announcing the end of the $20 million ARPA Support Grant program entrusted to the foundation by the state in October. 

Since then, the Rhode Island Foundation handled the distribution of grants in amounts between $50,000 and $150,000 to 240 groups supporting initiatives to address food insecurity, housing insecurity, and behavioral health care. The money came from the $1.1 billion in ARPA funds given to Rhode Island by the federal government as economic stimulus to help in recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lori Burnstingle looks through the aisles of the food pantry at West Bank Community Action Program in Warwick on Wednesday, April 26. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

“We could have done it ourselves,” Speaker of the House K. Joseph Shekarchi, of Warwick, said in an interview. “It’s just not a very fast process if [the state] does it.

“You can’t just say, ‘I’m a charity, give me a million dollars!’” Shekarchi continued. 

He said the foundation’s knowledge of the philanthropic landscape allowed it to swiftly verify the legitimacy of organizations without the bureaucracy direct state funding would entail. 

Rhode Island Foundation President & CEO Neil D. Steinberg speaks during an event at the West Bank Community Action Program building in Warwick. (Photo by Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

Rhode Island Foundation President & CEO Neil D. Steinberg said it was the foundation’s largest pool of grants ever.

“This is what we do,” Steinberg said in remarks at the press conference. “This was a big lift and we got [the money] out quickly.

“That’s good news that got tempered by the fact that it’s still needed.”

The first grant awards, totaling $8.3 million, were awarded to 91 organizations in December with the remaining $11.7 million distributed to 149 groups over the last four months.

Housing and food security major issues

West Bay Community Action President and CEO Paul Salera said the program helped the agency make ends meet when it mattered.

Without the support of our services our community would struggle to meet the everyday needs of their households,” Salera said. “We help countless numbers of individuals and families stay housed, keep the heat on and enjoy fresh and non-perishable pantry staples; as well as providing pantry delivery services for residents who are homebound and vulnerable.”

He said that requests for services increased drastically since the Covid pandemic. Whereas the food pantry would help 40 to 50 people daily four years ago, that number increased to about 100 today. 

The organization’s counterpart, East Bay Community Action, also received a $150,000 grant from the foundation to sustain and expand their housing support program. Organization President and CEO Rilwan Feyisitan, Jr., said the funding supported 193 individuals throughout the East Bay region.

“These funds are allowing us to be proactive and not just reactionary,” Feyisitan said. “We are able to hire more of the necessary additional staffing we need and do strategic planning before the next wave of crises comes crashing. 

“This [program] is not just a luxury, but essential to making real long-term changes in our state.”


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Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade previously covered education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.