More than 200,000 people are receiving food stamps in Hawaii, a historic high, and the program has grown steadily each month this year despite a recent decline in the unemployment rate.

It’s a reflection of how food insecurity continues to be a problem in Hawaii as the pandemic drags on, advocates say.

Enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program grew as the spread of the coronavirus caused unemployment to spike and family incomes to plunge. The state also made it easier to enroll by allowing people to apply online and suspending six-month eligibility reviews.

“The reality is we haven’t had this many SNAP recipients in the state of Hawaii ever,” said Brian Donohoe, who leads the benefits, employment and support services division at the Hawaii Department of Human Services.

Food bank volunteers sort fresh produce in preparation for a food drive at the Hawaii Food Bank in Honolulu to provide food for families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Monday, September 29, 2020. (Photo: Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat)
The Hawaii Food Bank has seen a decline in the number of people picking up food but says demand is still 60% higher than prior to the pandemic. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

Hawaii’s unemployment rate is 7.7%, far higher than pre-pandemic levels but much lower than last year’s highs. But that has done little to stem the food stamp demand.

“We would expect to see at least a stabilization in the number of recipients and perhaps a reduction of those,” Donohoe said. “We’re not. We’re seeing a slow, steady incline in the numbers.”

The reimplementation of rules requiring eligibility recertification — which had been suspended as part of COVID-19 relief efforts — could lead to a drop in program enrollment, raising concerns about whether families who actually need help might miss out.

Amy Marvin, chief executive officer of the Hawaii Food Bank, said the number of people picking up food donations each month has slowly been falling but demand is still 60% higher than prior to the pandemic.

Marvin expects food insecurity in Hawaii to remain above pre-pandemic levels for the next year and a half.

Continued Need

Instead of holding large events, Hawaii Food Bank has been partnering with nonprofits like churches and shelters to disperse food distribution throughout the community.

“Even though we are not seeing people waiting in line on the freeway for food anymore, that need still exists,” Marvin said.

The historic high enrollment in the food stamp program is part of a broader swelling of public services to help support those who have struggled during the pandemic.

For example, the number of enrollees in the state's Medicaid program also has steadily climbed and currently exceeds more than 421,000, compared with under 330,000 in May 2019.

But that safety net, strengthened through emergency orders and legislation, is starting to weaken. The eviction moratorium is scheduled to be lifted in two weeks. And rules for safety net programs that were relaxed during the pandemic are now being re-instituted. In May, the unemployment office reimposed requirements that recipients prove that they're looking for work.

Food stamp participation could drop now that the federal rules requiring states and counties to ensure that people who are enrolled are actually eligible went back into place on July 1. The state has since sent thousands of letters to families asking them to prove they're still eligible for the program.

If they don't meet citizenship and income requirements, they'll lose the benefit. But even people who are just above the income eligibility limit for SNAP might be struggling with food insecurity.

"We are internally very concerned with the changes in SNAP enrollment and want to just be sure that we’re ready to respond," said Marvin from Hawaii Food Bank.

So far, relatively few people have replied to the state's efforts to recertify their eligibility to receive food stamps, even after the state worked on a media campaign to try to get people to respond. Donohoe said just over 50% of people to whom the state sent recertification requests replied.

Reimplementing Rules

In a pre-pandemic world, 80% would. He's worried that some people who are eligible might overlook the letter from the state and end up surprised when they don't see any money on their electronic benefits transfer cards.

"I know that families are hungry and I don’t want them to have to wait," he said.

While anyone going hungry is worrisome, local advocates are particularly concerned about how gaps in food security might affect children.

Daniela Spoto, director of anti-hunger initiatives at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said during the pandemic Hawaii went from "one of the most food secure states for children to one of the least."
Hawaii Medicaid enrollment has sharply increased since the pandemic started. Department of Human Services

Recent reports, including one from the national advocacy group Feeding America, have shown an alarming rise in the number of children at risk of going hungry.

"Our children are some of the most vulnerable in the country," Marvin said.

Hawaii families have until Aug. 2 to sign up to get the last round of pandemic EBT, a substitute for school lunches during the remote school year, according to Nicole Woo from the Hawaii Children's Action Network.

The Department of Education announced it is providing free school lunches to all kids this upcoming school year.

Woo said the impacts of food insecurity could last far beyond the end of the pandemic.

"We know that even short bouts of poverty for children have long lasting effects on their learning and future earning potential," she said.

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