Nearly half of Hawaii recipients of food support are employed but the end of additional federal assistance is going to sting.

Laina‘ala Kekahuna has grown used to working on a tight budget to feed her family but, like many across Hawaii, she faced difficult times during the coronavirus pandemic.

Before the pandemic, the 31-year-old’s monthly $1,200 stipend was just about enough to feed herself, her four children and boyfriend. If her budget did not stretch far enough, her friend and coworker Pikake Demotto-Lum – who receives $900 in monthly SNAP benefits – would help her, as Kekahuna had done for her.

Since March 2020, both households received about $400 a month in extra federal money to help them meet the pandemic-related hike in food prices.

But Hawaii’s final allocation was paid out Wednesday.

Pikake Demotto-Lum, 32, works about 40 hours each week but still uses SNAP to adequately make ends meet. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Demotto-Lum and Kekahuna’s extra $400 was close to double the average of $213 per month that Hawaii’s 80,000 SNAP-receiving households received through the emergency federal allotments.

Without that money, hunger advocates warn, Hawaii – where 12% of the state’s population received SNAP benefits in 2022 – will hurtle towards a “hunger cliff,” and place additional demand on food pantries and food banks.

Kekahuna and Demotto-Lum both work about 40 hours a week at Kahumana Food Hub and Organic Farms, where they are farm hub specialists, but they still struggle to make ends meet for their families..

That’s not unusual. In 2022 46% of Hawaii’s SNAP recipients were actively employed.

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On Monday alone, Kekahuna’s grocery bill came in at about $400, a “ridiculous” amount for staples such as milk, eggs, bread and cereal, she says.

“People think everybody is living off food stamps,” Kekahuna said. “Not everybody. We do work and we are still paying our taxes like everybody else,” she said.

Demotto-Lum says the looming shortfall will mean she may have to rely on her mother’s help – who also receives SNAP – to help feed herself, her boyfriend and her two children.

While the pair can also occasionally take produce home from the food hub, the cost of living is becoming harder to bear.

Kahumana Farm includes farming areas, a café, packing and distribution areas where local produce is farmed, packaged and delivered by local farmers who live within the Waianae community. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

It’s a story that Kahumana executive director Tom McDonald is familiar with and something the almost 50-year-old nonprofit is dedicated to addressing, providing educational programs to empower the community, while also aiming to provide affordable and healthy local food.

“For most people in our world out here, it’s a hybrid model of self-reliance and assistance from the community,” McDonald said.

“And things get out of a balance in both ways: People get overly reliant and people have trouble making it by themselves.”

McDonald’s vision for Kahumana is to create as much opportunity for its 100 employees and the wider community, by scaling up, creating jobs and fostering future workers and entrepreneurs.

Kahumana received funding and grants from the federal government to fuel the Kaukau 4 Keiki Program, which will produce 50,000 boxes of food for children over the summer break and help the food hub grow.

Tom McDonald is executive director of Kahumana Farm, which employees about 100 people on the leeward coast of Oahu. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

At The Bottom Of The Cliff

The number of families that receive SNAP benefits varies from month to month, though in January the emergency allotment reached almost 84,000 families, according to Scott Morishige of the Department of Human Services.

Supporting more than 150,000 people, the amount paid out was just short of $18 million.

The state also provided child-focused SNAP payments, Keiki P-EBT, which ended in December.

Hawaii Foodbank warehouse.
Hawaii Foodbank is preparing for increased demand. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

Hawaii Appleseed raised the alarm that SNAP recipients across the state would be facing a “hunger cliff,” in February.

Hawaii Food Bank is gearing up for more demand, up from its service to 120,000 households per month, and food banks across the island chain are feeling the pinch too.

As soon as March hit Child and Family Service saw an uptick in demand, says Novelyn Hinazumi, who directs the organization’s programs on Kauai. 

And that is above the pre-pandemic trend that saw demand rise towards the end of each month, when pocketbooks are stretched thin.

The organization typically services 200 to 225 families twice per month, on Kauai alone, though the wider implications include the health and education impacts on children, Hinazumi says.

Portrait of Director of Anti-Hunger Initiatives Daniela Spoto.
Hawaii Appleseed Director of Anti-Hunger Initiatives Daniela Spoto. (Provided/Hawaii Appleseed)

“What may not be as apparent is that there are other things that come along when you don’t have enough income: Increased stress, worry and lots of discord,” Hinazumi said.

The end of pandemic-related payments will convert into the “steepest drop in benefits ever,” according to Daniela Spoto, Appleseed’s director of anti-hunger initiatives.  

The issue of Hawaii’s cost of living is laid bare by the loss in the emergency assistance monies, she said.

The 2023 federal Farm Bill could help restore some of the money SNAP recipients have been getting but that likely won’t be resolved until the fall. In the meantime the current program lacks the nuance to address local need, Spoto said.

That leaves the food banks to pick up the slack.

“Basically, they’re going to have to brace themselves for a huge uptick in demand. It’s going to be really hard,” Spoto said.

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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