Demographic shifts mean that all of Maui County is excluded from a federal program meant to benefit kids in rural communities.

Bernie Patinio and her team at Kahumana Food Hub will distribute thousands of boxes of food across Oahu this summer, piling them up with local produce, milk, canned tuna and bread.

Statewide, approximately 8,000 boxes of food will be distributed every week to children in food insecure families across Hawaii, as part of the Kaukau 4 Keiki program.

Kahumana is already the distributor of 3,600 boxes per week on Oahu, though Patinio and her team anticipate that might increase to 5,000 soon. 

Each box contains 14 meals for each child, covering their breakfasts and lunches that would be typically covered by school meal programs. 

But new USDA designations requiring that children must come from rural areas in Hawaii has created challenges for distribution, and highlighted rapid changes in wealth distribution driven by the coronavirus pandemic.

Dean Hanohano and Bernie Patinio distribute food supplies in Nanakuli as part of the Kaukau 4 Keiki program. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The Kaukau 4 Keiki program launched in 2021 and was lauded as a success, feeding Hawaii’s many food insecure families already contending with some of the highest food prices in the country. 

It stalled in 2022 but this year the program has been revived, possibly for good, meaning the state could leverage millions of federal dollars to feed children locally produced food. 

But with the reboot has come rules that did not exist in 2021.

The program now only applies to families living in rural designated areas recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds the program.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

The rural designation rule “came down last second,” according to Hawaii Food Hub Hui coordinator Saleh Azizi.

“There wasn’t a great feeling about this mapping, with someone sitting in D.C. telling us what’s rural and what’s not,” Azizi said.

Executive director of Malama Kauai Megan Fox says an influx of wealthier people during the pandemic pulled some communities out of eligibility, as the census data has skewed the reality on the ground.

“It’s happening to our communities, these big wealth gaps,” Fox said. “There’s people really at the bottom of it.”

For Oahu, Kahumana has been able to do a workaround, setting pick-up spots in rurally designated areas.

The pick up locations, given the mapping, are “just awkward,” Azizi says.

There is a concerted effort among the administrators of the Kaukau 4 Keiki program to source as much locally grown food as possible for the program, which will run for up to eight weeks. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Maui Sidelined

The rule change has essentially ruled all of Maui County out, as the program’s local sponsor found the program unviable without key areas like Kahului, Kihei and Makawao that are not considered rural by the USDA.

Maui United Way, which ran Maui’s program in 2021 and distributed up to 600 boxes each week, now will not because of the new designations.

Maui United Way President Nicholas Winfrey estimates demand would only be at 80 boxes per week, making the entire project untenable.

“That’s a huge subset of those 500 to 600 boxes,” Winfrey said in an interview.

The nonprofit was able to deliver the program last year with private funding, which Winfrey says he is not ruling out this year given the need.

“I think there’s heaps and heaps of opportunities for this program, even if the rural designations change,” Winfrey said.

School food advocates see the box program as far superior to congregate feeding, where kids can still eat at schools over the break in a program being offered in 86 public schools across Hawaii this year.

Many supporters of the Kaukau 4 Keiki program see it as superior too, because it gets more federal funding.

photo of food box deliveries as part of the Kaukau 4 Keiki program
Maui’s Kaukau 4 Keiki program delivered a week’s worth of groceries to children on three different islands during the pandemic but the program will not run this year. (Courtesy: Bryan Berkowitz/Maui United Way/2022)

Still Meeting Demand

Food hubs and other organizations involved in the Kaukau 4 Keiki point to the program’s support of local agriculture as well.

Over six weeks of food distribution on Kauai, Big Island and Oahu, just short of $3 million in federal reimbursements could trickle down to hundreds of local farmers and their workers.

On Kauai, the demand is so high at the moment that Malama Kauai is finding it difficult to keep up before it’s program launches next week.

Food hubs such as Kahumana’s are driving demand for local produce.
(David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The revival of tourism has drawn Kauai’s supply of local produce, and labor shortages are affecting the organization’s ability to deliver its program beyond 400 boxes per week.

Fox says Malama Kauai has resolved to make it work this year because it’s one of the most effective programs feeding children in the state.

If it continues, organizations like Malama Kauai would be able to tell farmers what they need far ahead of time and benefit both the children and the food system.

“That’s one of our key markers of how successful we are: How much of our spend is in Hawaii,” Fox said. “That’s really important to us.”

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

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