Learn by Doing: Food Justice Pioneer

No obstacle is a match for MPH student Kerri Connolly. As deputy director of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute, she works tirelessly to improve food access for families. As a Brown MPH student, she works to acquire the skills she’ll need to achieve her food-system busting goals.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I was a first-generation college student, so I worked almost fulltime during my undergrad to put myself through. Navigating college as a first-generation student, I switched my major so many times, but it was always in the sciences and I ended up majoring in nutrition. When I joined the Peace Corps after college as a community health worker in Costa Rica, I saw kids whose only meal was at school. So this issue of food access, of food insecurity has been a theme and motivating factor for me.

While serving in the Peace Corps, I learned to write grants, becoming the grant writing lead for the other Peace Corps volunteers. Next, I took on a role at the Harvard School of Public Health as a research assistant.

I’ve been with RIPHI (the Rhode Island Public Health Institute) for almost four years now doing policy work, research, grant writing, program management, and strategic and organizational planning. I am also a project director at the Brown School of Public Health for Professor Amy Nunn, who also serves as the executive director of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute. She has been a champion and advocate for me and my work, and I credit a lot of my success to her mentorship.

I originally started with the Rhode Island Public Health Institute to work on the retail SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) incentive program. That role grew into the food access manager role where I run the food access division, which also includes Food on the Move, the RIPHI’s mobile produce market. Last January I took on the role of RIPHI deputy director.

What is the retail SNAP incentive program?

The retail SNAP incentive program incentivizes SNAP recipients to spend their SNAP dollars on produce by providing 50% off their fresh fruit and vegetable purchases, with the goal of improving healthy food access and nutrition among SNAP recipients.

A USDA-funded study, known as the Healthy Incentive Pilot, of 12,000 randomized people in Hamden County, Massachusetts that compared SNAP incentive groups and non-SNAP incentive groups, found that incentives increased fresh fruit and vegetable purchase and consumption by 30%.

We started the process three years ago with a variety of stakeholders at the table. We had planning meetings for close to a year with DHS, DOH, the Rhode Island Food Dealers Association, and other state and community agencies. We also talked to SNAP recipients; we were very intentional—we didn’t want to design a program for folks who didn’t also have a voice in that design. And I think that is incredibly important throughout public health and implementing policies and programs.

What impact did participants’ input have?

We went in thinking that SNAP recipients would want the incentive not only on fresh produce, but on frozen and canned produce as well, but everybody told us, “That’s what I’m already buying because frozen is all I can afford. I would much rather eat the fresh produce that I don’t have access to.” We saw this a lot, particularly in first-generation immigrant communities where, in their countries of origin, they had gardens and fruit trees in their backyard. When they come here, their dietary quality is actually worse. So you brought SNAP recipients, community leaders, and government together to the table. Yep. We got through the whole planning process. Our goal at the time was to get a small state appropriation to match with a USDA grant to do a very small program. And then COVID happened.

Did COVID hurt or help?

I don’t think it helped necessarily, but it did shine an intense light people could no longer ignore on inequities, on disparities, on food insecurity. It was always there, but easy for people to ignore until COVID was like, “No,” in screaming, flashing lights.

When COVID hit, we realized the state appropriation was not going to happen, which was understandable. Rhode Island’s resources had to go to handling the crisis. So during that time we took a step back and said, “Okay, we’re not going to get this appropriation. How are we going to get this program funded?”

Historically, RIPHI has supported a sugary drinks tax, so we said, “Can we restructure the sugary drinks tax so that it funds the retail snap incentive program?” That bill, which would cost beverage distributors a 1.5-cents-perounce tax on bottled sugary drinks, has been in the works for close to 10 years but hadn’t gotten a lot of headway.

One of the issues that kept coming up was the need for an equitable plan for the funds from that tax. And here we had a tangible plan that would put those dollars back into the community. So we rewrote the legislation, submitted it in January of 2021, had our sponsor in the Senate, Senator Valerie Lawson, and our sponsor in the house, Representative Jean Philippe Barros.

We need to talk about processed foods and why they are so cheap and why strawberries are so expensive. There has got to be a way to do it better.

Kerri Connolly

We formed the NOURISH Rhode Island coalition, which was made up of approximately 30 different community organizations including the NAACP, Progreso Latino, and the Rhode Island Foundation. This coalition amplified the voices of our community members who were SNAP recipients themselves. The advocacy group participated in a video and spoke to the media at a press conference at the State House.

I’ve never met better champions in my life. They’re just amazing. And we made an incredible amount of progress with that legislation. If it had made it to the floor, we would’ve had the votes to have it passed, but then, thanks to COVID, the ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars flooded in. That made a new tax very unappealing when the state is awash with all this other funding.

So the bill did not pass, but then we decided, “Okay, well we have all this money. Let’s change our approach.” And so then we wrote a new proposal. Again.

We just keep changing according to the times! But that’s public health. Right? And so we wrote a proposal asking for an appropriation for the retail SNAP incentive program through
the ARPA dollars. And that’s what we ended up getting.

Thanks to our incredible advocacy coalition NOURISH RI, our lobbyists, the tireless efforts of our bill sponsors, and unwavering support from the Department of Human Services (DHS), we received an $11.5 million dollar state appropriation to fund a 1-year pilot program for the Retail SNAP Incentive Program.

We’re proud that this will be the first statewide program, and all of Rhode Island’s approximately 144,000 SNAP recipients (2021 DHS SNAP report) will benefit.

We are also using an automatic EBT solution. A lot of other programs have used gift cards or coupons, which is just not effective for recipients or retailers. I’ve been working on the technology solution in the background to get that really formalized. We hope in the next year the tech solution is up and running and we’re launching.

This funding is for 1 year only. We will need to go up to bat during the next general assembly session to get the program permanently funded in the state budget. I encourage anyone interested in joining the NOURISH RI coalition to advocate for this policy next session to get in contact with me.

You already sound very busy, but you are also an MPH student. What are your goals for your public health training?

I love the idea of running my own research, because I can make it about implementation science and implementing real world solutions, which is really where I want to be. I’m here at Brown for the tangible skills that I haven’t gotten yet. I recently learned that I love epidemiology, who knew? But I love it. So I want to hone my skills and formally learn biostatistics, learn better data protocols, better research protocols.

I don’t want to do research on “do inequities exist?” We know that they exist; across food systems, healthcare, law enforcement, so many areas. I want to do work that does something about inequities in a way that brings long-term, sustainable change. That’s why I was so passionate about the Retail SNAP Incentive Program, because it’s a systems-level change.

Someday, I want to break the food system up. I know that’s a lofty goal, but we currently subsidize sugar in this country and we leave all of our other farmers growing healthy food out to dry. I want to figure out ways to reinvent the wheel a little bit.

If you could snap your fingers and improve the U.S. food system, what would you do?

Well, we still have modern-day slavery in the food system, so that’s a real issue. A lot of immigrants who come here without the proper channels are told they’re going to work on a farm for six months and then they’ll be fine. They’ll live in this country. We’ll process your papers. That’s a lie. And they’re stuck in indentured servitude for years, decades, generations.

So we have deep issues that we need to fix in our food system. There is no reason why everyone shouldn’t be able to afford to eat healthy food. Cost is the number one barrier
to eating healthy. I see it every day. It’s not education. We need to talk about processed foods and why they are so cheap and why strawberries are so expensive. Access to fresh, affordable, healthy food is a basic human right. There has got to be a way to do it better.