COVID-19 is altering “The Face of Starvation” in Hawaii

John Drago never had to ask for help putting food on the table before the pandemic. But then the closure business dried up and he had to close his kiosk at the Ala Moana Center in April.

Nowadays he waits for hours in a mile-long queue to receive a box of food from a church on the east side – sometimes in his car and sometimes walking in the sun.

“Basically, I was unemployed the whole time and closed down,” he said on Friday, calling the food his “saving grace”.

As the pandemic continues and unemployment rises, more and more people in Hawaii are struggling with hunger, including one in three children this year, according to a new report. “Everyone hurts,” said Drago.

A volunteer distributes donated food to those in need during a food trip at Central Union Church on Wednesday October 28, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman Photo Civil Beat)As the pandemic continues and unemployment rises, more and more people in Hawaii are struggling to put food on the table. Ronen Zilberman / Civil Beat

The new data from Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization, predicts that Hawaii’s food insecurity rate will increase by about 50% to around 233,000 people in 2020 due to the effects of COVID-19, up from 151,000 in 2018.

That is more than 80,000 people who are newly unable to provide enough food for an active and healthy life.

The nationwide food insecurity rate for 2020 was projected to be 16.8%, but far higher for children at 29.4% or 89,050. A report breaking down the results of the data found that households with children are generally more likely to be food unsafe due to the closure of schools where many children have had access to free or discounted meals.

For the first time, it affects more people from all walks of life, in addition to those already affected by poverty and hunger, said Ron Mizutani, president and CEO of Hawaii Foodbank, which serves Oahu and Kauai. Most recently, 78% to 83% of recipients said they lost their jobs during the pandemic.

“The face of hunger has changed,” Mizutani said, adding that he even saw people pull up in Teslas or BMWs. Staff and volunteers are trained not to judge or shame anyone because everyone has a story to tell and deserves respect, he added.

Hard reality

Hawaii jumped fourth among the states with the highest projected percentage change in food insecurity rate, according to the Feeding America report.

This is in part because Hawaii’s rate was relatively low in 2018, so the percentage increase was greater when compared to other places that already had higher rates.

However, this is not intended to downplay the severity of the data showing that many of the 1.4 million people in Hawaii are no longer able to pay for groceries as the tourism-dependent state has been hit hard by job losses.

“All of this is driven by unemployment,” said Mizutani. April and May were the worst months in terms of unemployment, hitting nearly 24% in both months. In September the rate fell to 15%. But that’s still high compared to the 2.4% in March.

It’s not surprising that the hospitality and service industries have been hardest hit by closings and layoffs. According to the Feeding America report, their workers are more likely to face food shortages and other difficulties during this time. The chances are also worse for minority households.

Mizutani says he doesn’t think Feeding America’s data projections accurately capture the true extent of the food insecurity problem in Hawaii.

“You are not there with us,” he said. “I would say now it’s worse.”

Hawaii Foodbank, a subsidiary of Feeding America, cites the data on their website, but their own data on how much food is being distributed and how many people are being served paint a much grimmer picture, he said.

For example, 19 million pounds of food was distributed in the seven and a half months since March, compared to 12 million for all of 2019.

The organization has also spent $ 8.6 million buying food to be distributed during the pandemic. This is 21.5 times more than the average annual budget of $ 400,000.

“The needs are so much more intense,” said Mizutani. Donations, grants, and government and philanthropic aid have also increased to make these purchases possible. While this is not a sustainable business model, it is working for the time being, he added.

Despite reopening on October 15 and some people returning to work, Mizutani said he didn’t expect the need for help to decline anytime soon as the visitor industry was slow to recover.

“Until things stabilize economically here, this need will remain at least during the holidays,” he said.

Safety nets

Food banks are only one resource.

Government support like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) continues to provide the greatest assistance to millions of people in need of food, according to the Feeding America report.

Same goes for Hawaii, especially during the pandemic, says Amanda Stevens, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Human Services.

The state’s SNAP data shows the number of recipients increased by about 15% from April through October. These are the months hardest hit by the waves of the virus compared to the same months in 2019.

That might not sound like a lot in percent, said Stevens. But in raw numbers, that’s about 157,000 people.

COVID-19 has also pushed the department to make other adjustments to keep up with the pace of the rise in applications, including moving from paper forms first to a fillable PDF form and then to a mobile-friendly web application.

“DHS is really about how we can help the people of Hawaii thrive,” she said. “During the pandemic, a safety net is to be provided in which food is also placed on the table.”

Parts of the federal government’s Coresavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) have also been made available for nutritional aid programs.

A breakdown of the Hawaii Data Collaborative’s funding shows that more than $ 25 million, or 2% of total funding, was allocated to food programs.

However, that doesn’t mean the money has been spent – the data suggests that only about 38% of total funds have been spent so far.

Long term solutions

One problem that has long disrupted Hawaii’s fight against hunger has been that much of what feeds its residents has to be brought in from elsewhere.

This is inherently unsustainable as there is a chance that something could cut off or severely restrict that flow. Something like a pandemic.

A 2012 food insecurity and food self-sufficiency report by the State Department of Business, Development, and Tourism found that approximately 85% to 90% of Hawaii’s food was imported.

That number has not improved, according to Jesse Cooke, vice president of investment and analytics at Ulupono Initiative, a social investment firm.

While data has become a little sparse in agriculture in Hawaii, we know that local production is inadequate to meet balloon needs, and there isn’t enough awareness of the severity of the problem or the political or financial support to get it remedy.

“If you had a disaster like a hurricane or tsunami during the pandemic and people had to lose their homes and be in close proximity to other people, it could have gotten really, really bad,” he said.

Wait, do you remember that close call back in July with Hurricane Douglas?

Douglas passed us by, but during the pandemic, people were still filling up with certain foods for various reasons, while supply chains were reduced compared to before the pandemic.

Famine relief organizations usually rely on longer shelf life foods like canned foods and dry food for distribution, he said. But with these massive supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic and human stockpiling, they now had to compete with the grocery chains.

“What happened was that the food banks had to start depending on the local farmers to supplement what they weren’t getting,” Cooke said.

The thing is, the farmers are fighting too, he said. Only about 6% of the approximately 7,300 farmers in Hawaii have a net income of more than $ 50,000.

Only a few dozen have proper certification to distribute to large grocers, he added. Many medium-sized farmers who sell to restaurants and hotels have lost their incomes during the pandemic.

To understand the food insecurity issue, people of Hawaii need to view local food production not as a luxury but as a necessity, like running a police station or a fire department, Cooke said.

“When there is a disaster, you need that source of food,” he said.

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