The Hawaii Foodbank’s massive emergency food distribution drives that fed up to 4,000 Oahu families in a matter of hours earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic are now a thing of the past.

Nearly a dozen events at Aloha Stadium, which started in April and drew thousands of residents who sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic to get free groceries, were funded by a now-depleted $2 million joint gift from the City and County of Honolulu and the Hawaii Resilience Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation.

In addition, dozens of construction companies paid the $250,000 bill for three more mass distribution drives in July at Windward Community College, Waianae Mall and the Polynesian Cultural Center. But that money has also run out.

Volunteers from the Lighthouse Outreach Center give out food to Kalihi community members during a distribution event on Thursday, May 14, 2020. Cars snaked for blocks as hundreds of people showed up to receive food donations. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Volunteers from the Lighthouse Outreach Center, a partner agency of the Hawaii Foodbank, handed out food to hundreds of Kalihi residents during an emergency food distribution event in May. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

The loss of food giveaways comes at a time when about 10% of Hawaii residents say they sometimes or often do not have enough food.

That’s according to the U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, which tries to measure the impact of COVID-19 on American households. The most recent data available is from the week of July 21 because the survey has been temporarily suspended to allow the Census Bureau time to prep for a second phase of data collection.

About 12% of Hawaii residents said they got free groceries or meals in the previous seven days, according to the most recent data. The largest share came from community programs other than food pantries or food banks. About 33% of respondents also said they got free meals from family and friends.

Only about 13% of respondents in Hawaii said they received free food from food pantries or food banks.

Hawaii Foodbank President Ron Mizutani said Oahu residents grappling with hunger still have access to emergency food assistance at its island-wide network of food distribution centers supported by more than 200 partner agencies, such as churches and community centers.

More people than ever are seeking food assistance at these smaller food distribution centers, he said, especially now that the larger events aren’t happening anymore. But they are equipped to feed hundreds of families at a time — not thousands.

“People are still receiving food,” Mizutani said, “just not at those huge events.”

Mizutani noted that while the large events were efficient in getting food to thousands of families at once, they did not accommodate everyone. Participants had to be in a vehicle to receive food. This was problematic for pedestrians, bicyclists and people who rely on public transportation.

The large events also generated a tremendous amount of traffic congestion. People lined up early because they feared the Hawaii Foodbank would run out of food and have to turn people away — which was sometimes the case.

Between 78% and 83% of people who received food from the mass distribution events said in a Hawaii Foodbank questionnaire that their employment had been affected by the pandemic, according to Mizutani.

Many of them said they were seeking emergency food assistance for the first time in their lives.

“In the future, we may bring back some of those mass distribution events,” Mizutani said. “It’s just that they’re very expensive to pull off and it takes an incredible amount of organization.”

Feeding Hawaii Is Getting Expensive

During the coronavirus pandemic, the Hawaii Foodbank has spent $5.1 million to keep thousands of Hawaii families fed amidst a sharp rise in hunger and shortages of food donations. By contrast, the Hawaii Foodbank spent just $400,000 on food purchases in 2019.

Most of the food distributed last year came from food donations, which have waned as grocery stores that normally donate their unsold food items grapple with delivery lags and shoppers who are emptying the shelves.

Another problem is that many individual donors are finding themselves suddenly unable to make the same charitable contributions that they made in the past because the economic downturn has devastated their own finances.

At the beginning of the pandemic, farmers were donating massive amounts of food to people in need because the restaurants and hotels that normally bought their crops had been forced to shut down. But that’s not happening as much anymore, said Jesse Cooke, vice president of investments and analytics at the Ulupono Initiative.

“Because there hasn’t been any hotel or restaurant recovery, farmers have definitely cut back,” Cooke said. “There’s no reason for them to stay at the same level of production because there’s not enough business. So they just don’t have that same kind of surplus anymore to donate to the food banks.”

As the Hawaii Foodbank continues to purchase more groceries than ever to keep up with the surging demand for food assistance, Mizutani said it’s a business model that’s not sustainable.

Volunteers and staff of the Hawaii Foodbank pack 2,500 boxes for families in need of emergency food assistance. Normally the Foodbank distributes less than a million pounds of food per month to Oahu residents, but during the COVID-19 pandemic the organization has distributed as many as 3.5 million pounds of food in a month. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

“Our business model is based on donations — that’s how we survive,” Mizutani said. “But because of COVID, we’re not seeing those donations coming in. So we’ve had to make up the difference by purchasing food. But that’s not something that we can sustain forever. Food banks are not built like that, to go out and purchase food when the volume of donations doesn’t meet the demand.”

So far, millions of dollars in donations from foundations and individual donors have allowed the food bank to buy enough food to meet the demand, Mizutani said.

“Our challenge any day, every day, is maintaining supply and demand,” Mizutani said. “The challenging part with COVID is we don’t know what demand will look like tomorrow, let alone the first of the year or even October 1. Our job is to stay stocked as best as we can. The reality is right now we’re fairly well stocked, but as fast as it gets in here, it’s headed out the door.”

All told, the Hawaii Foodbank has distributed a staggering 11.5 million pounds of food on Oahu and Kauai between March and mid-August.

May marked a high point in demand for food assistance, with an average of more than 144,000 pounds of food distributed daily to Oahu and Kauai residents.

On Oahu, the demand for food assistance in May was 260% higher than it was the previous year.

With Hawaii’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for trans-Pacific travelers now extended until October, keeping the tourism industry stagnant, Mizutani said the organization is bracing to meet what it expects could be even greater demand for food assistance in September and October.

“We’re trying to prepare the best we can for another influx in need,” Mizutani said. “The need has not slowed at all since the pandemic started and now with the announcement that reopening the economy to tourism is going to get pushed back again, we are looking at things staying the same or getting worse.”

Employers Stepping Up To Feed Furloughed Workers

The sudden and prolonged need for food assistance in Hawaii is now so great that some employers are stepping up to provide their laid off employees with meals.

Kohala Coast Resort Association on the Big Island will distribute twice monthly emergency food aid to its nearly 5,000 furloughed hospitality workers, as well as employees of shops and other businesses that operate within the hotel and resort properties.

The initiative is funded by a $900,000 federal coronavirus relief grant. The money will cover four monthly meals for a family of four, as well as pantry staples sourced from local farms, for each employee from September through November.

Since March, Mauna Kea Resort has provided its furloughed employees with 75,000 meals funded by donations from people who reside within the resort property. Courtesy: Mauna Kea Resort/2020

“When the federal government decided to not extend the $600 extra dollars per week for unemployment benefits, that impacted people’s bottom line a lot,” said Stephanie Donoho, the KCRA’s administrative director. “Because we have ongoing relationships with food distribution companies and the farmers and the ranchers that we buy from all the time, we thought this is our place to step in.”

Some of the hotel and resort properties represented by the association have been providing their furloughed workers with groceries through swiftly organized partnerships with nonprofits and donations since the beginning of the pandemic. The Mauna Kea Resort, for example, raised $400,000 in donations from resort residents this spring to supply employees with 75,000 meals.

The KCRA’s new and expanded food program builds on the most successful of these smaller efforts to help the association’s workforce fend off hunger.

One of the things that we’re trying to do with this program is not only feed our employees, but also help our local farm and food distribution companies, which have been hurting, too,” Donoho said. “The resorts are some of the largest agricultural buyers on the island, so we’re using all of the funding to purchase the food locally so that our farms and our distributors can continue to support their employees, too.”

Civil Beat Reporter Yoohyun Jung contributed to this article.

Want more information on COVID-19 in Hawaii? You can read all of Civil Beat’s coronavirus coverage, find answers to frequently asked questions or sign up for email newsletter updates — all for free. And check out pictures of how community groups and volunteers have been helping out in our Community Scrapbook.

Hawaii’s Changing Economy” series is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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