HILO, Hawaii Island – A collaborative effort is showing real progress in combating hunger on the Big Island, where one in eight residents lacks adequate food.

Roughly 14,500 Hawaii families statewide have “very low food security,” according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released in September.

“In most, but not all, households with very low food security, the survey respondent reported that he or she was hungry at some time during the year, but did not eat because there was not enough money for food,” the report states.

That scene plays out too frequently on the Big Island, which has Hawaii’s highest per-capita population of people at risk of hunger. Nearly 13 percent of Big Island residents were food insecure in 2016 – almost twice the statewide average cited in the USDA report, according to the latest tally by Feeding America.

A Hilo Farmers Market vendor tallies “DA BUX” $1 vouchers he collected on a recent rainy day. SNAP participants using EBT cards get half price on local food and vegetables under the unique program.

Big Island Hunger

Addressing that problem is a growing coalition of social service providers, business owners, farmers and community leaders who are using innovation to feed the hungry.

“There’s been a lot of incredible work happening here for a really long time,” said Silvan Shawe, who became the first government food-access coordinator in state history when she joined Hawaii County in November.

One of the best examples of that work is the DA BUX Double Up Food Bucks program that’s available to people who qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps. It builds on SNAP-based incentives available on other islands by making discounted food available at supermarkets, a mobile market and farm stand in addition to traditional farmers’ markets. A $1 voucher good for local produce is issued for every SNAP dollar spent on similar purchases at authorized locations.

The program adds food to people’s plates and money to farmers’ pockets.

“Each week we’ve noticed an increase in customers using the program,” said Keith De La Cruz, owner of the Hilo Farmers Market, which offers the discounts every third Wednesday.

Launched at the market in July, use nearly tripled in the second month, said De La Cruz, who called it a win-win situation.

Although the program excludes agricultural products such as Big Island coffee, macadamia nuts and dried fruits, it’s still very popular – and necessary.

“People are starving,” vendor Nancy Lulich said, while redeeming the stack of DA BUX cards she said accounted for two-thirds of that day’s sales.

Gaurangi Jones said Big Island food programs make it cheaper to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables for her husband and five boys.

Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

Gauangi Jones said she saves up her SNAP awards so she can shop at the market for her husband and five boys.

“The best part about it is I get way more fruits and veggies,” Jones said while making recent purchases using the vouchers. “It’s so freaking awesome.”

She also likes supporting the local farms supplying the produce.

“It helps us a lot,” said Maria Shirley, owner of Dimple Cheek Farm, one of the unique sites where the DA BUX program is offered.

Shirley said sales have jumped 80 percent since she became a program supplier in July, allowing her to open four new greenhouses at her Mountain View farm and begin preparations for adding six more.

Kauilani Perdomo at the Volcano Farmers Market with her produce and DA BUX Dollars.

Courtesy of The Food Basket Inc.

“It’s perfect,” she said of the program linking needy residents with farmers. “People are so happy they can get 50 percent off.”

Now in its second year, the DA BUX program is financed with a $500,000 grant that The Food Basket Inc., a Big Island food bank, got from the USDA and leveraged to obtain additional funding from other sources, Kristin Frost Albrecht, Food Basket executive director, said in an email.

Partnering with KTA Superstores resulted in 20 varieties of locally grown produce being offered at two of the Big Island chain’s grocery stores under a pilot expansion launched earlier this year, she said.

“KTA’s discounting method at the POS (point of sale) was the first of its type in the nation,” Frost Albrecht said, adding it soon will be expanded to all KTA stores to help low-income working families.

The DA BUX program generated approximately $45,000 in customer savings and income to farmers during its first year that ended last July, Koran Munafo, a private consultant the Food Basket hired to evaluate its produce programs, said in an email.

“Because of the lower price, it really increases access,” Munafo said, noting supplemental funding is being used “in efforts to make the existing funds last for at least three years of the four-year period.”

Besides cost, the other key issue affecting Big Island hunger had been ineffective collaboration among various organizations and agencies, but that has changed with the creation of groups like the Hawaii Island Food Alliance “so we have people in the different sectors working on the same problem,” Munafo said.

Cutting food costs through programs like “DA BUX” that offers subsidized produce is one way Hawaii Island is addressing hunger.

The Food Basket Inc.

A multiagency partnership that includes the food alliance, the Food Basket, The Kohala Center and Blue Zones, among others, has produced DA BUS, a “mobile food pantry project serving residents in the 12 USDA-designated low income/low access areas – formerly known as ‘food deserts’ – around Hawaii Island,” Frost Albrecht said.

A separate USDA grant pays for the program that started last January, she said.

The mobile market follows scheduled stops around the island, offering locally grown produce. Anyone may buy from the van, while people using EBT cards for SNAP purchases save 50 percent.

Those working to increase Big Island food security also point to the business community’s efforts to streamline the cumbersome SNAP application and ensure more people who are eligible for the food benefits actually obtain them.

“Slowly by slowly, I think we’re making progress,” Munafo said.

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