Thousands of Oahu residents lined up for free groceries Thursday — many enduring a 2-mile line of cars and a four-hour wait — in one of the most dramatic examples of economic suffering brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Traffic snaked back to the H-1 freeway from the pickup site at the Waipio Peninsula Soccer Complex.
The event, scheduled for noon to 4 p.m., was the result of a new assistance program for recently unemployed individuals due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Cars started lining up outside of the complex as early as 8:30 a.m.
When all was done, the program handed out more than 50 pounds of food to each of the approximately 4,000 households, which included fresh, local produce and other products from local businesses, according to city spokeswoman Brandi Higa.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell canceled his regular news briefing Thursday afternoon to hand out food at the event, donning a palaka face mask and straw hat.
“Today was all about coming together to bring hope and relief to thousands of Oahu families,” said Caldwell in a statement. “The look on so many faces showed such gratitude and togetherness; it was really an incredible day.”
Volunteers from the Royal Hawaiian Band, as well as other city staff, were also on hand to transport, pack and distribute food.
The program is a public-private partnership among the City and County of Honolulu, the Bank of Hawaii Foundation and the Hawaii Community Foundation. With their financial assistance, the Hawaii Foodbank expects to help feed an estimated 256,000 people over the next eight weeks.
Kapolei resident Daralyn Tiqui got in line at about 9:45 a.m. and said she waited four hours with her two kids.
The line snaked around before reaching the food distribution tents, she said, but they were prepared with snacks, and her daughter even attended her online class.
“I think it was worth the wait,” said Tiqui after returning to her home. “They gave a good amount that we were able to share. We want to thank all the sponsors and local companies and others that are helping the local people here. We’re really grateful.”
Besides a tray of eggs, she said the giveaway included fresh fruits, vegetables, packs of noodles, condiments, chicken and five pounds of beef. She was able to share some of it with a neighbor and extended family.
The state has reported more than 225,000 filings of unemployment, with a huge backlog of claims that still need to be processed. Hawaii’s workforce is the second most affected in the U.S. by the pandemic, with approximately 30% working in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors.
Higa said the distribution started early, at about 11:30 a.m., because of the unexpected traffic.
A line of cars was initially jammed as far back as Kahuanui and Kahuapili streets Thursday morning. At about 2:30 p.m., traffic was still backed up in the east- and westbound lanes of Farrington Highway as motorists waited to turn onto the road to the soccer complex.
“My friends, they’re sick and they’re stuck at home,” said Mercy Mariano, who drove through the line as volunteers placed grocery bags into her Nissan’s open trunk.
The partnership was spurred by the unprecedented demand on food banks in Hawaii due to the financial consequences of the pandemic, which include an economic downturn, numerous business closures and increased unemployment.
Demand for Hawaii Foodbank food assistance has jumped nearly 60% and is expected to continue rising.
Hawaii Foodbank CEO Ron Mizutani said the need and level of food distribution were unprecedented and that he was grateful for all of the contributions, as well as the army of volunteers, that made it happen.
“Again, we appreciate the patience of folks,” he said. “I know there are a lot of people stuck in traffic, but there are a lot of needs out here and we’re trying our best to address them.”
The city matched a $1 million donation from the Hawaii Resilience Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation for COVID-19 relief efforts. Those funds will go to the Hawaii Foodbank to deploy food distributions at new locations across Oahu, supplementing ones that already take place through 200 partner agencies.
Thursday’s food distribution event is the first of several more planned islandwide in upcoming weeks, with the goal of two taking place per week. The next event hasn’t been set yet.
More information on upcoming food distributions can be found at hawaiifoodbank.org.