More Hawaiian children are at risk of starvation than ever before, according to new federal data.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Hawaii’s hunger rates were lower than national averages. Today, the situation in Aloha State is worse than at the national level – a remarkable change, according to local researchers.
The data collected through the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey is the subject of a new report from the University of Hawaii that found that nearly half of Hawaiian families with children had difficulty getting meals as of March to pay.
“Rates were roughly in the 10% range before COVID and are currently close to 50%,” said Jack Barile, the interim director of the Social Science Research Institute at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “The majority of people who are facing food insecurity now are seeing it for the first time or in recent history. So this is something amazing.”
The effects of the pandemic on children and their families have manifested itself in different ways.
On the one hand, the growing need for meals has sparked new collective action among community groups to meet children where they are and to make sure they are being fed. New programs could pave the way for long-term resilience.
On the flip side, some proponents and policy experts fear that COVID-19 has undermined the momentum of local food initiatives for children in schools as agencies struggle to cover the emergencies. Another difficulty in their efforts to reach children is Hawaii’s unequal learning environment, with some children staying at home while others return to the classrooms in person.
The rise in food insecurity is due to Hawaii’s record unemployment rate, which was the highest in the nation as of February. About three-quarters of families who said they had difficulty paying for groceries during U.S. census interviews said they experienced lost income during the pandemic.
The consequences of worsening food insecurity in Hawaii are likely to have a lasting impact on children’s health that could take years to measure. According to the report, Hawaii’s starvation trends reflect rising levels of anxiety and depression in the state, and respondents who have had trouble affording themselves for the first time said it was affecting their mental health.
Local experts fear that families who have never qualified for assistance before will miss out on benefits because they are not familiar with navigating the system. Of the families that struggled the most to afford food, only about a fifth were registered for financial assistance.
School meals upside down
One of the greatest efforts to combat childhood hunger is the Department of Education’s free or discounted school feeding program. However, the pandemic presented a challenge to the program. Schools had to turn around to reach students who chose to study from home.
The Hawaii DOE set up 203 take-away school lunch distribution points last spring and will continue to operate them through the end of the current school year. Meals are free for anyone under the age of 18, regardless of whether they are enrolled in the free or discounted lunch or enrolled in a public school.
Anna Pruitt, lead author of the UH report, said that people in rural communities face many obstacles in getting to food distribution points. Some public bus routes have been discontinued. Other events were just drive-through events limited to families with cars.
There are other ways the state has tried to ensure that children get their typical free school lunch even when they stay at home and attend classes online.
The Hawaii Department of Human Services reports that approximately $ 61 million in food aid was provided to more than 97,000 eligible students during the pandemic to date.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, a government-funded assistance program administered by the Hawaii Department of Human Services, has expanded the eligibility criteria to now support more than 200,000 Hawaiian residents, compared to an average of 150,000 to 155,000 people in previous years, so Brian Donohoe, administrator in the Human Services department.
“We suspect the demand will continue, if not grow,” said Donohoe.
The state also launched a temporary electronic pandemic benefit transfer program that sends debit cards to eligible families on behalf of their child to make up for potential loss of school meals.
Expanding federal funding relief was critical to Keiki, says Daniela Spoto, director of anti-hunger initiatives at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice. Getting the P-EBT program going is difficult, however, as the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Human Services have to differentiate between which children attend classes in person and who opt for virtual learning, she said.
“Each state had to submit a plan to the federal government explaining how it was going to check that the children had not only gone to school for five consecutive days, but also that they had free or discounted meals,” she said.
The additional planning and federal documents required by the DOE delayed the introduction of the third round of services, she said. As a result, families with P-EBT card benefits that they qualified for in October will not be distributed until April 20th.
Payments are made retrospectively. Students in schools with hybrid learning programs may receive a benefit of up to $ 72 per month, while students doing distance learning full-time can receive up to $ 143 per month. Students in schools that have full-time study programs are not eligible for the P-EBT program.
Another challenge, the researchers say, is making sure food aid reaches the right people. Spoto, Pruitt and Barile said more local study is needed to develop culturally and community-appropriate solutions.
US Census data did not provide a comprehensive race demographic breakdown of how many native Hawaiian or Pacific islander families are in need.
“We need to do more local research to make sure we understand the prevalence as well as the racial and ethnic differences,” said Pruitt.
Postponement to meet demand
The non-profit Hui Mālama i ke Ala ʻŪlili or huiMAU has focused on restoring land where sugar cane was grown to grow Hawaiian staples such as kalo or taro and ulu or breadfruit.
A pantry has now opened, sourcing local products and ingredients for the surrounding Hamakua community on the island of Hawaii with 1,300 residents.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the organization has had great success working with local farmers who otherwise looked after the tourism industry, says Executive Director No’eau Peralto.
“We didn’t realize how much was grown here by our people because we didn’t necessarily see it in our stores,” said Peralto.
With philanthropic funds and community donations, huiMAU has succeeded in paying farmers the market price for their products and maintaining these relationships – even if the tourism industry reopens and hotel restaurants are a competition.
As part of the after school program, huiMAU now sends home a box of groceries from the region with children for their families once a week. It’s an effort that they hope to keep going.
“We try to make it as safe and welcome and love a space as possible and meet people where they are just to make sure everyone is fed,” he said.
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