Big Island low-income senior citizens will no longer receive fresh weekly produce deliveries.

The Food Basket, Inc. – Hawaii Island’s Food Bank, a nonprofit food bank, chose not to continue facilitating the federal Senior Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program, after federal funding was cut from $149 per person to $50. En Young, executive director of The Food Basket, said the food bank delivered a bag of locally grown produce to qualifying seniors once a week during the summer.

“We would get this big bag of nice local food every week,” said Toby Hazel, a Pahoa resident who received groceries from the program. “Now you’d have to take this voucher to certain designated farmers markets, and a lot of that food is from the mainland. We took pride in it being from our local land.”

Now, the Hawaii County Economic Opportunity Council will pick up the program and distribute $50 vouchers to each eligible senior so they can buy their own produce at a pre-approved farmers market, said Rona Suzuki, executive director of the state’s Office of Community Services.

KCC Farmers Market vegetables. 18 april 2017
The new system will allow recipients to use vouchers to buy produce at farmers markets. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

The change happened when OCS applied to expand the program from helping 1,493 people on the Big Island to potentially reaching 2,018 people, and also expanding the program to the rest of the state. The program is currently only on Oahu and the Big Island, and low-income seniors on Oahu already receive the $50 voucher during the summer.

The Big Island was grandfathered into the higher rate.  But in order to expand the program, the USDA requires that the stipend revert to the nationwide $50 maximum.

We kind of take a loss on each of the different contracts we have,” Young said. “Together, the leverage covers some of the costs, but this is one of the programs we were taking the biggest losses on.” 

The Food Basket is, however, working with OCS on the expansion of a different federal program. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program is a year-round service that delivers 35 pounds of foods ranging from cereal to cheese for seniors once a month. Young said the pilot program was through Hawaii Food Bank in Oahu, and this year is the first time it is on the Big Island.

To qualify for this program, the requirements are that a resident must be at least 60 years old with a household income at or below 130 percent of the U.S. federal poverty guidelines. In 2017, this was $18,018 or less a year for a single person household. People can apply through their specific county instead of mailing their materials to Honolulu to be processed.

“This is our most generous program,” Young said. “And we are lucky we ran Senior Produce for so long.”

To qualify for the senior produce program, most people must be at least 60, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Food Nutrition Services. People with disabilities who are under 60 and Native Americans who are at least 55 years old qualify as well.

They also must be a resident of Hawaii in the county where they apply and have a maximum household income of 185 percent or less of the federal poverty level. For a single person in Hawaii in 2017, that is anyone who brings in $25,641 or less a year. Senior citizens have to apply for the program through the state’s Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

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