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Inflation is the latest challenge for local food banks as the holiday season approaches

Flickr - Waldo Jaquith

More than two years ago, people waited hours in traffic to receive food at emergency food distribution sites.

The need is still great today.

"We are still serving 50% more people than we were prior to the pandemic," said Amy Miller Marvin, president and CEO of Hawaiʻi Foodbank. "As inflation started to really take hold in the spring, we've seen the need continue to really creep."

"Initially, we thought maybe these are families who are impacted by COVID, who've got back on their feet. But we're seeing people who have never had to ask for help before, who are needing help for the first time," she told HPR.

The Food Basket on Hawaiʻi Island is still assisting three times the amount of people it helped in 2019, according to Executive Director Kristin Frost Albrecht.

"At the height of the pandemic, we saw six times more," Frost Albrecht said. "So we are making progress, but inflation is so impactful on everybody's budgets right now, because certainly, salaries are not keeping pace."

While The Food Basket is seeing a similar trend in people seeking assistance, the organization is experiencing other challenges — especially with food shipments.

"We historically did not purchase food," Frost Albrecht said. "Now we're purchasing nearly all of our food. And that would be because the supply chain that typically brings us federal foods are not coming through."

The Food Basket didn't receive its August shipment of goods, and Frost Albrecht expects missed shipments could become more frequent due to the ongoing supply chain challenges.

Another issue food banks have to consider is the price of gas — not only for day-to-day operations but also for food shipments. For The Food Basket, an extra 250 miles to ship goods from Honolulu to Hawaiʻi Island incurs extra costs.

"Fuel prices in the last year have gone up almost 60%," Miller Marvin said. "So the cost of just keeping our trucks on the road where they go to pick up donations from retailers, wholesalers — and then bring them back."

Typically, Hawaiʻi Foodbank and The Food Basket could leverage their purchasing power for food products. For instance, Miller Marvin said a $10 donation could provide more than 20 meals for local families. But inflation is also impacting that leverage.

"Spaghetti has gone up 60% since the last time we brought it in," Miller Marvin said. "Chicken 108%, canned pears 66%. So the food we're purchasing is much more expensive. And at the same time, some of our other reliable channels of food have started to slow down."

Supermarkets and other grocers generally will donate some goods to food banks. However, Miller Marvin said supply chain delays have also caused them to cut back.

In addition to donations slimming down, support from a vital program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is also declining. The Emergency Food Assistance Program helps supplement food bank supplies with USDA foods.

"Last quarter, we brought in about 25% of the same TFAP as we had that same quarter last year. So we're in a pretty tight spot," Miller Marvin told HPR.

Frost Albrecht told HPR that due to the inconsistency of shipments, her organization will augment it with other things, especially locally-grown food.

The pandemic has taught both The Food Basket and Hawaiʻi Foodbank to "pivot." Both organizations have committed to expanding their support of locally-grown produce and meat.

Frost Albrecht said The Food Basket began relying more on local farmers and ranchers in the last two years. Although it's more expensive, she said the organization is committed to supporting the local economy.

"We really made the switch to buy from our local producers in every way that we can," she said. "We've historically done that at The Food Basket... We've always had strong produce programs. We like to buy local protein. We also purchase through local wholesalers, our grocery stores and distributors. We probably could get things cheaper if we were to go to the continent, but that's just the choice we've made. Our economy really needs our support. Now more than ever."

Miller Marvin said Hawaiʻi Foodbank has found new partners on the continent through different programs. But she told HPR the organization is increasing its commitment to local farmers.

"We have a program where we're purchasing culturally relevant foods. So we buy poi, we buy uala, and it's kind of expensive," she said. "We're really trying to protect foods that we think are really critical for our community that might be more expensive. And then how can we stretch our dollars in other ways, so that we can still meet the needs of the community with the budget that we have."

Both Frost Albrecht and Miller Marvin have their concerns as the holidays approach, and costs continue to go up. But they are hopeful to provide a memorable, and nutritious meal for those in need.

"We did talk about Cornish game hens, and we talked about chickens. We talked about turkeys. All of those things are hugely just priced out of our range right now," Frost Albrecht said. "So we're really focusing again on locally produced meats, we're looking at fish products, and tofu."

"Turkeys are really expensive this year, not just because the regular supply chain stuff, but bird flu. That's been an issue, a lot of turkeys were culled earlier in the season," Miller Marvin said.

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