Many older adults were at risk of going hungry before the pandemic, local advocates say, but COVID-19 prevention measures made it even harder for seniors to ensure their next meal.

Dining programs at churches and community centers were canceled to avoid virus transmission. Family and friends had to keep a distance. And the economic impact on families undoubtedly had a toll on seniors living in multigenerational and low-income households.

But those involved with efforts to make sure kupuna in need have enough food say new momentum has emerged over the past year. For the first time, a patchwork of meal delivery services has transformed into a statewide coalition of 40 organizations working in tandem as part of the Kupuna Food Security Coalition.

Kokua Kalihi Valley staff member left, Stella Jacinto prepares some food/supplies for right, Estrelia Maduli at the Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services building.
Kokua Kalihi Valley staff member Stella Jacinto, left, prepares some food and supplies for Estrelia Maduli at the Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services building. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The number of home deliveries to seniors who were considered the most vulnerable to the virus “exploded,” said Daniela Spoto, the anti-hunger initiatives director at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice.

Federal COVID-19 relief funds boosted efforts to provide local and more nutritious produce for seniors. And meal deliveries are no longer just about dropping off bentos. Now, providers stop to check in with seniors about their health and any other issues they might be having.

“It could be something little, like aunty’s cane is falling apart and she needs a new one. She doesn’t want to ask, but we see it and we’re able to provide her with a new one,” said Scott Garlough, operations manager of Ho’oulu ‘Āina, which helps run meals and supplies to kupuna in Kalihi weekly.

A Growth In Need

Overall, Hawaii suffered a 50% increase in rates of hunger from 2018 to 2020 — one of the largest in the country, according to Feeding America. A University of Hawaii report published in March illustrated how that affected children and families.

But the true extent of how the pandemic affected seniors and their food security has yet to be captured by data.

An estimated 16,700 kupuna in Hawaii were at risk of hunger before the pandemic took hold, prompting lockdowns and restrictions that left many elderly isolated, according to a January 2020 report by the Hawaii Appleseed Center.

Another way to measure hunger is by participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which grew by 20% in Hawaii from December 2019 to December 2020.

Today, among the 189,000 people currently enrolled in the program, 15% are at least 60 years old, according to the Hawaii Department of Human Services. The program helps people pay for food.

“This is a really big issue and it was kind of invisible before the pandemic,” Spoto said, adding that many more kupuna would likely qualify for the assistance but have not signed up.

An estimated half of eligible seniors in Hawaii are missing out on SNAP, which provides financial assistance for groceries, largely because of a perceived stigma associated with such programs, she said. The Appleseed report found seniors are among the least likely to sign up for programs like SNAP.

“People are a little more averse to feeling like they should have to accept help,” said Spoto. “Maybe it’s a generational thing or something they’ve been taught.”

Spoto and other community partners have been working to counter that belief.

“You are within your rights and you shouldn’t feel ashamed for taking advantage of the public benefits that society offers to you,” she said.

New Collaboration For The Long Haul

The Kupuna Food Security Coalition, which was convened by the City and County of Honolulu Elderly Affairs Division last March and administered by the Hawaii Public Health Institute, made it a priority to ensure seniors in need would be enrolled in SNAP and other programs that could help them for the longer term.

“The beginning was based in emergency response making sure meals were getting into the hands of kupuna, but we realized that wasn’t a sustainable model. We want to ensure the kupuna are taken care of beyond that,” said Lindsey Ilagan, HIPHI program manager.

Since its inception, the network has helped more than 4,800 older adults sign up for sustainable food assistance programs including SNAP. It also coordinated a record number of meal deliveries — more than 1.2 million — along with 30,000 health and wellness checks last year.

The coalition is one of the largest coordinated efforts to address hunger among older adults in Hawaii and received $3 million in federal funding through the CARES Act and other philanthropic assistance.

For the first time, service providers worked in concert and tracked how much food was going out to each neighborhood on a weekly basis. That helped the organizations identify overlap in services as well as pinpoint communities that had yet to be reached or needed more support.

Staff at Kokua Kalihi Valley prepare food to be shared with seniors at their senior center located nearby on Gulick Street.
Meal deliveries to kupuna skyrocketed during the pandemic, local researchers and advocates say. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Now that much of the federal funding has dried up, the data collection aspect will need continued financial backing to continue into 2021, she said. The individual organizations continue to raise funds for their efforts locally while volunteer numbers start to dwindle as more people go back to work.

The coalition continues to meet and leaders from across the state are discussing how to keep the momentum going, even as resources fluctuate, she said. The Kupuna Food Security Coalition is currently in the application process for more federal funds.

“What we’ve been able to achieve thus far was heavily reliant on community energy,” Ilagan said.

Other programs have been able to capitalize on COVID-19 relief funds to expand their reach in a lasting way.

DA BUX Double Up Food Bucks, which provides a 50% discount on the purchase of local produce and healthy purchases for SNAP-EBT cardholders, was able to add about a dozen more smaller food retailers thanks to federal funds, according to its statewide manager Chelsea Takahashi.

As of 2020, more than three-quarters of SNAP participants had a DA BUX location within a reasonable distance from their home. The statewide program is administered by The Food Basket in partnership with the Hawaii Good Food Alliance.

Back To Their Roots

Our Kupuna, a nonprofit founded in response to the pandemic last year, also matches volunteers with older adults to do their grocery shopping. Some seniors do not qualify for SNAP due to their income but still could use assistance, said Keva DeKay, Our Kupuna’s EBT elite program director.

Local health centers and meal delivery programs are making an effort to ensure that the meals they provide are nutritious and locally sourced.

The Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services health center added meal deliveries using food and medicine grown at its nature preserve, Ho’oulu Aina, to its weekly wellness checkups and supplies like toiletries or glucose tablets.

Staff members Rexie Acido and right, Susan Kaneshiro prepare meals that will be headed out to people waiting at the Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services building.
Staff members Rexie Acido and Susan Kaneshiro prepare meals for Kalihi seniors for the Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services meal deliveries. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

More seniors signed up for help when they heard about it by word of mouth, allowing Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services to expand its reach, Garlough said.

Their response has been inspiring, too, he said. Kupuna take cuttings from their local produce bags to grow more vegetables like carrots, onions and lettuce at home.

Many also insist on offering fruits or vegetables from their own garden to add to the delivery team’s stock.

“They don’t want to be a charity case. They want to give back,” Garlough said.

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