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Food banks in Hawaii are struggling to meet the growing demand

Nov. 20 – With the holidays approaching, food banks in Hawaii are still struggling to meet families’ needs as household budgets are hit by inflation.

As the holidays near, Hawaii food banks are still struggling to meet family needs as household budgets are hit by inflation.

“We continue to see the need increasing,” said Amy Marvin, President and CEO of Hawaii Foodbank. “Our retail donations are still down compared to last year. Donations are generally declining.”

The food bank, however, is grateful to get help from community drives like last week’s “Turkey Tailgate” at Murphy’s Bar & Grill in downtown Honolulu. The 11th Annual Tailgate resumed in person after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19.

By the end of the evening, more than three dozen turkeys were donated to the Hawaii Foodbank and given to the Institute for Human Services for distribution to families ahead of Thanksgiving.

Additionally, the community donated more than $4,000 online to the food bank as part of the event, with Don and Marion Murphy raising the first $1,000. The sum was enough to provide more than 11,000 meals, the food bank said.

As an example of the growing need, the Hawaii Foodbank’s weekly food distribution at Central Union Church in Honolulu has seen a roughly 10% increase in demand, Marvin said.

The agency generally provides food to about 600 families, enough to cover the weekly average of 582 that has appeared in recent months. However, last week 642 families sought help.

According to Marvin, the need is great for Kupuna and working-class families, and more and more people are finding themselves on the food distribution lines for the first time.

The Hawaii Foodbank also wants to help families celebrate Thanksgiving. A recent donation of 63 cases of turkeys from C&S Wholesale was distributed to more than 250 families.

The Hawaiian & Pacific Islands Division of the Salvation Army is also helping out. After a two-year hiatus, hundreds of volunteers will once again be serving free turkey meals with all the trimmings to about 2,000 guests in person at the Blaisdell Exhibition Hall on Thursday at the Blaisdell Exhibition Hall.

Inflation Everywhere There will be more Thanksgiving dinners this year than in years past due to inflation overall, and both families and the nonprofits that serve them are being weighed down by higher gas, grocery and electricity bills.

Marvin said many families are still struggling to emerge from a financial crisis and that it is a years-long process.

“A lot of people have been able to delay paying rent and utilities during the pandemic, and that hasn’t gone away,” she said. “This is still debt that people have incurred or maybe they put their grocery bill on their credit card. We anticipate it will likely take years for families to recover.”

After the last recession in 2008, she stressed, it took a full decade for food security to return to previous levels.

As for the Hawaii Foodbank, the supply chain issues have been resolved over the summer, but there’s still a combination of challenges: flagging federal government support, rising costs everywhere, and rising demand.

During the summer, the Hawaii Foodbank received only about 25% of its federal food supply from the US Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

That was better than the few months it didn’t get any shipments from TEFAP at all, but it was still a big dip to recover from. The non-profit organization did the rest by buying groceries from mainland suppliers and working with local farmers.

One of Hawaii Foodbank’s goals is to offer healthy choices, including fresh produce that is more expensive.

Marvin said she was encouraged to hear that more funds have been made available for next year but still expects to have to offset the greater need. On average, the agency distributes about 360,000 pounds of groceries a week.

The need is greater Alicia Higa, director of health promotion and community wellbeing at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, said demand in her weekly pantries for keiki and kupuna is still high.

“We actually see that the need is greater now than it was at the peak of the pandemic,” she said.

According to Higa, about 750 kupuna and 1,800 keiki line up at food stores along the coast every week. Providing healthy foods like fresh produce and poi is part of providing positive health incomes, she said.

The Kupuna pantry budget is set to be exhausted by March as it is based on lower forecasts of 500 to 550 people.

Higa still sees people struggling with the “benefit cliff,” where a small increase in Social Security payments or wages results in exclusion from the benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Rent increases have also strained the budgets for kupuna.

WCCHC would have liked to host a Thanksgiving food distribution event, but did not have the financial resources to do so. An event for December 18th has been budgeted well in advance and is expected to sell out quickly.

SNAP benefits extended Gov. David Ige on Friday for a fifth emergency, which extended SNAP emergency dispatch benefits in Hawaii over the holiday until Jan. 16. Ige has extended benefits multiple times since declaring the initial proclamation in March 2020.

Families continue to suffer from food insecurity, the proclamation said, “due to the impact of the pandemic coupled with continued increases in daily living expenses — including food, childcare, transportation and utilities, as inflation rates soar to record levels and unprecedented fuel prices.”

Marvin said the Hawaii Foodbank itself is also struggling with inflation, resulting in higher operating costs.

The nonprofit’s fuel costs increased from about $6,000 in October 2021 to $10,000 a year later.

The cost of grocery shopping has also increased, for example chicken by 108% year-on-year.

“Our budget is stretched a lot further because fuel and food costs have increased,” Marvin said. “We aim to make up the difference with TEFAP and retail donations. We are in this constant recalculation each month of how we can continue to meet the needs in the community.”

Marvin said cash donations are welcome because Hawaii Foodbank can expand those dollars through its wholesale channels and other partnerships. For every dollar donated, more than two meals can be provided.

Phil Acosta, executive director of Aloha Harvest, which focuses on food rescue and redistribution, said the nonprofit has received more requests for donations from various organizations.

“There was a lot of funding during the peak of the pandemic,” he said. “A lot of it has dried up.”

As the economy reopens, Aloha Harvest has partnered with hoteliers to redistribute surplus food and secured some from last month’s Hawaii Food & Wine Festival event at the Hawai ‘i Convention Center.

Luckily, Acosta said there’s a spike in donations during the holiday season when people are feeling generous. But that’s temporary, and Aloha Harvest needs to get creative to meet the increased demands of the new year.

Looking ahead, nonprofits are bracing for food needs to continue to rise in 2023 if SNAP emergency benefits and other government assistance expire and economic uncertainty continues to loom.

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