Thurston Gomes thought that he had gotten his family into a fairly stable position.

After a period of unemployment during the pandemic, Gomes found a full time job as a maintenance worker, secured stable housing with the help of Section 8 vouchers, and successfully applied for food assistance benefits through the state.

Then last November Gomes received a $1 an hour raise, bumping his pay to $17 an hour. That extra $160 a month wasn’t enough to lift Gomes’ family out of poverty, but Gomes says it led to him losing the $972 a month in food assistance that he, his wife, and their 10-year-old daughter had been receiving.

This summer Gomes had to choose between paying rent and buying groceries. He fell two months behind on rent, before community organizations and family helped him catch up.

“I’ve been under more stress than I’ve ever been under in my entire life,” Gomes said.

Food Bank Distribution Leeward Community College Coronavirus Volunteer
A volunteer packs a truck bed at a food distribution at Leeward Community College in 2020. Demand is rising again for food assistance. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

Food distribution organizations say an increase in people like Gomes who have run into what’s known as the “benefits cliff,” coupled with rising food costs and the end of other pandemic-era assistance programs is driving an unexpected spike in demand for food assistance.

“We’ve been getting reports from across the state from folks saying they are seeing some of the longest distribution lines they’ve seen since the early pandemic days,” said Daniela Spoto, director of anti-hunger initiatives at Hawaii Appleseed.

Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center has seen a 30% increase in participation at its keiki and kupuna food distribution sites in the last six weeks. The Food Basket, a food bank on the Big Island, is back up to serving about 50,000 people a month — a lower figure than at the height of the pandemic, but still much higher than the 14,000 people a month seeking assistance pre-pandemic.

  • 'Struggling To Get By' Special Series

Both organizations are seeing a notable increase in the number of senior citizens seeking food assistance.

Many of the seniors are telling food distribution workers that, like Gomes, they’ve lost access to SNAP or other assistance programs after receiving minor increases to their retirement benefits.

In January, the Social Security Administration gave beneficiaries a 5.9% cost of living adjustment — the biggest one-year adjustment to benefits in four decades. That increase was meant to address the burden of inflation, but may be contributing to a minority of beneficiaries losing much-needed food assistance.

A spokesperson for the Hawaii Department of Human Services said in an emailed statement that the agency understands the frustration of individuals and families that are just over the eligibility limits. However, income eligibility and benefit levels are set by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service and the state has no control over them.

“It’s life or death for some of these kupuna because they’re having to decide between medicine and rent and food,” said Alicia Higa, director of health promotion and community wellness at Waianae Comp. “It’s not OK.”

Meeting The Demand

At the same time that demand is increasing again, the donations and grants that flooded in at the start of the pandemic are beginning to run out. 

At the height of the pandemic, The Food Basket needed to rent extra storage space to hold all the food it had. Now the shelves at its Hilo warehouse are frequently empty.

“Everything that’s coming in is instantly going out,” said Kristin Frost Albrecht, executive director of The Food Basket. 

The Food Basket has seen a significant decrease in shipments in the last year from a federal commodity surplus program that typically provides a large percentage of the pantry’s staple foods. As a result, The Food Basket is having to cut back on the amount of food it gives out to program participants each week. 

“We’d like to give people lots of food but that’s not happening,” Frost Albrecht said. “We’re having to be very careful with what we give out.”

The Food Basket’s Hilo warehouse was overflowing with donations earlier in the pandemic. Now the storage shelves are often empty. Courtesy: The Food Basket/2022

Ongoing food supply chain challenges are also a problem. Even when The Food Basket purchases food to supplement donations, orders get canceled and shipments are irregular. 

“It is the biggest challenge of my time in food banking,” Frost Albrecht said. “We don’t actually know where to turn anymore. Because we are purchasing food and even then we can’t necessarily get the food that we need when we need it.”

Waianae Comp is in the process of adding two school distribution sites to keep up with demand. At the start of the school year, the nonprofit was seeing about 1,200 children a week picking up food, a number that has grown to roughly 1,800 a week in September.

“Resources at home are limited and you know, parents are encouraging their kids to stop by the pantry to pick up foods,” Higa said.

Demand has also risen significantly at sites aimed at senior citizens. This month Waianae Comp added a new weekly food distribution event at an affordable housing complex for seniors in Kapolei, after workers at the site said they were regularly seeing seniors who were skipping meals and couldn’t afford to eat. About 140 people participated in the first event — at a building with 143 units.

Finding the funding to meet all this need is a significant challenge.

Higa said her team was thrilled to get a large grant this year to support its kupuna food pantry program. The grant covered some administrative expenses and provided $603,750 to purchase food — an amount that Higa expected to last until the end of June. She now anticipates running out of money in February.

The need is widespread.

Waianae Comp was not planning to hold a major food distribution event until the holiday season. But so many people have been calling the office with stories like Gomes’, that the organization scrambled to find the funding for a food distribution in September. They opened up registration for the event on Monday, and all 1,700 available slots were filled in less than four hours.

“The last six weeks have been extremely eye opening,” Higa said. “People are really struggling.”

Struggling To Get By” is part of our series on “Hawaii’s Changing Economy” which is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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