John Drago never needed to reach out for help to put food on the table before the pandemic. But then business dried up with the shutdown and he had to close his kiosk at Ala Moana Center in April.

These days, he says he waits for hours in a miles-long line to receive a box of food from an east side church — sometimes in his car and other times, on foot in the sun.

“Basically I’ve been unemployed and shut down all this time,” he said Friday, calling the food drives his “saving grace.”

As the pandemic endures and unemployment rises, an increasing number of people in Hawaii are struggling with hunger, including a projected one in three children this year according to a new report. “Everybody’s hurting,” Drago said.

A volunteer distributes donated food items to those in need during a food drive at the Central Union Church on Wednesday, October 28, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
As the pandemic endures and unemployment rises, an increasing number of people in Hawaii are struggling to put food on the table. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

The new data from Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization, projects that Hawaii’s food insecurity rate will increase by about 50% to some 233,000 people in 2020, up from 151,000 in 2018, because of the effects from COVID-19.

That’s more than 80,000 people deemed newly unable to provide enough food to live an active, healthy life.

The statewide food insecurity rate for 2020 was projected at 16.8%, but the figure was far greater for children at 29.4%, or 89,050. A report breaking down the data’s findings said households with children were generally more likely to be food insecure, due to the closure of schools, where many children had access to free or reduced-price meals.

More people from all walks of life have been impacted for the first time, on top of those who were already experiencing poverty and hunger, said Ron Mizutani, president and CEO of the Hawaii Foodbank, which serves Oahu and Kauai. In recent large-scale food distribution drives, 78% to 83% of recipients said they lost their jobs during the pandemic, he said.

“The face of hunger has changed,” Mizutani said, adding that he has even seen people drive up in Teslas or BMWs. Staff and volunteers are trained not to judge or shame anyone, because everyone has a story to tell and deserves respect, he added.

Harsh Reality

Hawaii jumped to No. 4 among states with the highest projected percent of change in food insecurity rate, according to the Feeding America report.

That’s partly because Hawaii’s rate in 2018 was relatively low, so the percentage increase was bigger compared to other places that already had higher rates.

But that’s not to downplay the gravity of the data, which show many of Hawaii’s 1.4 million people have lost the ability to pay for food as the tourism-dependent state has been hit hard by job losses.

“This is all driven by unemployment,” Mizutani said. April and May were the worst months in terms of unemployment rates, hitting almost 24% both months. In September, the rate dropped to the 15% range. But that’s still high compared with the 2.4% it was in March.

It’s not surprising that the hospitality and service industries were hit hardest by closures and layoffs, with the Feeding America report saying their workers are more likely to face food shortages and other hardships during this time. The odds are also worse for minority households.

Mizutani says he doesn’t think the Feeding America data projections accurately capture the true extent of the food insecurity problem in Hawaii.

“They’re not on the ground with us,” he said. “I would say right now, it’s worse.”

Hawaii Foodbank is an affiliate of Feeding America and quotes the data on its website, but its own data about how much food is distributed and how many people are served show a much grimmer picture, he said.

For instance, 19 million pounds of food have been distributed in the seven and a half months since March, compared with 12 million for the entire year of 2019.

The organization also has spent $8.6 million purchasing food to distribute during the pandemic, he said, 21.5 times more than the average annual budget of $400,000.

“The needs are that much more intense,” Mizutani said. Donations, grants, and government and philanthropic help have also increased to make these purchases possible. While that’s not a sustainable business model, it works for the time being, he added.

Even with the Oct. 15 reopening and some people returning to work, Mizutani said he doesn’t anticipate the need for help going down any time soon, because the visitor industry will be slow to recover.

“Until things stabilize economically here, this need will continue into the holidays at least,” he said.

Safety Nets

Food banks are just one source of aid.

Government assistance like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, continues to provide some of the biggest help to millions of people needing food, according to the Feeding America report.

The same is true for Hawaii, especially during the pandemic, says Amanda Stevens, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Human Services.

The state’s SNAP data shows about a 15% increase in the number of recipients from April to October, the months most heavily hit by the ripples of the virus, compared with the same months in 2019.

That may not sound like much in terms of percentages, Stevens said. But in raw numbers, that’s about 157,000 people.

COVID-19 has also pushed the department to make other adjustments to keep up with the pace of the surge in applications, she said, including transitioning from paper forms first to a fillable PDF form, then to a mobile-friendly web application.

“For DHS, it’s really about how we can help the people of Hawaii to thrive,” she said. “During the pandemic, it’s to provide a safety net, which includes putting food on the table.”

Portions of the federal Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, money have also been allocated for food assistance programs.

A breakdown of the funding from the Hawaii Data Collaborative shows that more than $25 million, or 2% of total funds, have been allocated for food programs.

But that doesn’t mean the money has been spent — only about 38% of total funds have been expended thus far, according to the data.

Long Term Solutions

An issue that has long riddled Hawaii’s battle with hunger has been that much of what feeds its residents has to be brought in from elsewhere.

That is inherently unsustainable, because of the possibility that something may cut off or severely limit that flow. Something like, say, a pandemic.

A 2012 report from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism on food insecurity and food self-sufficiency said about 85% to 90% of Hawaii’s food was imported.

Fast forward to 2020, that number hasn’t improved, says Jesse Cooke, vice president of investments and analytics at Ulupono Initiative, a social investment firm.

While data in Hawaii agriculture has gotten somehow more sparse, we know that local production is not sufficient to match the ballooning need, and there’s not enough awareness about the seriousness of the issue, or political or financial backing to fix it.

“During the pandemic, if you had a catastrophe like a hurricane or tsunami and people had to lose housing and they have to be in close proximity to other people, it could have gotten really really bad,” he said.

Wait, remember that close call in July with Hurricane Douglas?

Douglas ended up passing us by, but people still stocked up on certain foods for various reasons during the pandemic, all while supply chains were reduced compared to before the pandemic.

Hunger relief organizations typically rely on longer shelf-life food items like canned and dry foods for distributions, he said. But with these massive supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic and people stocking up, they now had to compete with grocery chains.

“What happened was food banks had to start depending on local farmers to supplement what they weren’t getting,” Cooke said.

The thing is, though, farmers are struggling too, he said. Only about 6% of about 7,300 farmers in Hawaii have a net income higher than $50,000.

Just a few dozen have the right kind of certification to distribute to big box grocers, he added. Many mid-sized farmers who sell to restaurants and hotels lost their income during the pandemic.

To understand the food insecurity problem, people in Hawaii must think of local food production not as a luxury but a necessity, like a police or fire department, Cooke said.

“If there is a catastrophe, you need that source of food supply,” he said.

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