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Hawaiʻi food banks ready to address pandemic-related challenges and community need

Flickr - Waldo Jaquith

Hawaiʻi's food banks served unprecedented needs after the coronavirus pandemic began last year. On Oʻahu, large venues such as Aloha Stadium were used as distribution sites to help the line of cars that often stretched for miles.

The Hawaiʻi Food Bank, which serves Oʻahu and Kauaʻi, says it assisted more than twice the amount of people it usually does. Today the need has declined, but the organization is still helping more people than in 2019.

"We're still serving roughly 50% more people on a monthly basis compared to prior to the pandemic," said Danny Schlag, communications director for the Hawaiʻi Food Bank.

"What that looks like is one out of every six Hawaiʻi residents are currently struggling with hunger. When you put that in terms of numbers, that's roughly more than 230,000 people."

Schlag says the pandemic has also worsened child hunger in the state — adding that roughly one in four keiki are food insecure. He says that's the second highest rate in the US.

Food banks usually see an uptick in need around the holidays. But the pandemic took that to a new level of demand last year — more than 4.5 million pounds of food last November and December.

"That represents an 88% increase in food distribution," Schlag said. "In terms of this year, I think we are expecting it to not be as busy as last year, but still elevated compared to prior to the pandemic."

"Last year, we purchased 6,000 turkeys. They were 12-14 pound turkeys, and they averaged about $12 each. This year, when we went to go buy turkeys, the average cost for that same turkey was $27."
Kristin Frost Albrecht, executive director, The Food Basket

On Hawaiʻi Island, the Food Basket is helping between 40,000 and 50,000 people a month. In 2019, it was assisting roughly 14,000 people.

In order to meet the increased need caused by the pandemic, food banks across the state relied on purchasing more food from the continental US. With that, comes the ongoing issues and challenges of supply chains and rising food costs.

Food Basket executive director Kristin Frost Albrecht says rising food costs impacted this year's Thanksgiving planning.

"Last year, we purchased 6,000 turkeys. They were 12-14 pound turkeys, and they averaged about $12 each," she said. "This year, when we went to go buy turkeys, the average cost for that same turkey was $27. So we did not end up purchasing turkeys, and have purchased chickens instead — which are still costly, but they were only $8 each."

On Oʻahu, Schlag said the Hawaiʻi Food Bank is used to supply chain issues, because it is prepared for disasters — such as hurricanes and tsunamis — that could disrupt shipping to the islands. Usually that means placing big orders far in advance.

But that doesn't mean the nonprofit won't be impacted by increasing food prices.

"Sometimes there's a delay in the effect for us. So because we put some of those orders well in advance, the next time we put them in we might be hit with further delays and some of those increases in prices," Schlag said.

At the Maui Food Bank, executive director Richard Yust told HPR the organization follows the same model as the Hawaii Food Bank — placing bigger orders in advance.

But for the first time in more than a year and a half, the Maui Food Bank is holding and sponsoring food drives.

Yust said the nonprofit suspended all food drive campaigns for health and safety reasons. But now, the food bank is relying on community support to help offset food costs to the organization.

He said the community response has been incredible.

"Now that we've started food drives again, that is bringing in a tremendous amount of food," Yust said. "I think that [residents] have been wanting to donate, but just haven't had the opportunity. So now that we have that availability once again, we're finding folks stepping up and really wanting to help make a difference."

However, supply chain issues and rising food costs may continue the increased need for food in communities, and impact food banks in other ways.

"The supply chain issues could impact what our grocery stores have on stock, on their shelves. And that in turn impacts what they can donated to the food bank," Schlag said. "A large majority of our food resources actually come from donations from grocery stores and local vendors. So when they don't have as much stock or product to sell, they also don't have as much to donate."

Another impact is households that are still recovering from the financial toll of the pandemic. Frost Albrecht notes the state continues to have one of the highest cost living rates in the country. And those two challenges combined will have an impact on a household's food needs for months to come.

"We're seeing a lot of two people employed in their household, and they still aren't able to make ends meet," she said. "I think that's going to be the normal for the time being."

While it will still take time for households to financially recover from the pandemic, the food banks say they will continue to find a way to assist those in need this holiday season and in the following months — with the help of the community.

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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