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Food demands in Hawaii increase as unemployment insurance complaints continue

  • Video by Dennis Oda / doda@staradvertiser.com

    Over 2,000 food boxes were distributed June 2 during the Show Aloha Challenge event at Aloha Stadium.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Volunteer Shawn Chang loaded boxes of food into Yanique Hadley’s vehicle at the Ohana food distribution held Monday at the Hauula Civic Center.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Volunteer Shawn Chang loaded boxes of food into Yanique Hadley’s vehicle at the Ohana food distribution held Monday at the Hauula Civic Center.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                A line of vehicles waited Monday for food to be distributed at the Hauula Civic Center.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    A line of vehicles waited Monday for food to be distributed at the Hauula Civic Center.

  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The Show Aloha Challenge had its biggest food event so far Tuesday at Aloha Stadium.

    DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The Show Aloha Challenge had its biggest food event so far Tuesday at Aloha Stadium.

  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Volunteers unloaded cases of water to give away at the Show Aloha Challenge at Aloha Stadium on Tuesday.

    DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Volunteers unloaded cases of water to give away at the Show Aloha Challenge at Aloha Stadium on Tuesday.

  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Joe Teixeira, left, and Leon Barber loaded bags of prepackaged food boxes and other items. Volunteers distributed 2,000 boxes of fresh produce, meats, keiki snacks and more while supplies lasted.

    DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Joe Teixeira, left, and Leon Barber loaded bags of prepackaged food boxes and other items. Volunteers distributed 2,000 boxes of fresh produce, meats, keiki snacks and more while supplies lasted.

The couple of hundred vehicles that lined up Monday in front of the Hauula Community Association on Kukuna Road symbolized the growing demand for food across the islands while some furloughed and laid-off workers still cannot get unemployment insurance, are appealing their denials or just recently got approved after months of frustration.

“The need for food assistance is greater than ever, with demand for food more than doubling in the past few months,” Hawaii Foodbank President and CEO Ron Mizutani told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in a statement Monday. “Hawaii Foodbank distributed 2,079,178 pounds of food on Oahu and Kauai in April and an astonishing 3,746,136 pounds of food on both islands in May. The greatest challenge has been matching supply with unprecedented demands during COVID-19, while continuing to meet the needs of the one in eight Hawaii residents who were already struggling with food security.”

Photo Gallery: Hawaii residents in need welcome food distribution events

To put the crisis in simple terms, Dotty Kelly-Paddock, president of the Hauula Community Association, who oversaw Monday’s distribution of food from the Hawaii Foodbank, said, “The need has gotten worse. The numbers are growing. Sometimes it comes down to a decision between rent or food.”

As she and her cousin Esther Runnels of Hauula waited to receive two boxes each of fresh produce, bread, yogurt treats and bacon or sausage, Vivian Filiaga began crying as she recounted the financial strain on her family since the new coronavirus stifled economic activity beginning in late March.

“We have zero income,” Filiaga said. “We have nothing.”

Monday’s donation of food from the Hawaii Foodbank and Sam’s Produce means “we’re able to survive,” Filiaga said.

Runnels, who used to work part time as a kupuna at Wahiawa Elementary School until she was let go in the wake of COVID-19, has been trying to get state unemployment benefits for 10 weeks but cannot understand why her application won’t get approved.

“I’ve been trying since March,” she said. “For some reason I keep getting denied.”

Similar frustration continue across the islands.

In Hilo, former part-time Sears employee and Uber driver Christopher Lamb said his appeal of denied unemployment insurance benefits inexplicably remains “pending.”

With his application in limbo, Lamb said that means he does not also qualify for additional, federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

Lamb estimates that he calls the state’s Hawaii island unemployment office 800 times daily seeking an explanation. Lamb knows the volume of calls he makes each day because his iPhone will track only 200 calls, and he constantly has to clear his phone of outgoing calls throughout each day.

“I have been given wrong phone numbers, false time frames of being replied to, false information from one person to the next, phone numbers that lead to voicemails that are full and pretty much anything else you can think that could go wrong with this whole experience,” Lamb said. “I would like some compassion from someone, someone that is willing to help and will help. … I am in a situation that is very dire, like many other people here in Hawaii.”

Lamb has been accepted into the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program — more commonly referred to as food stamps — but said the $356 in monthly benefits “only lasts for two or three weeks” for him and his partner. “It doesn’t stretch for the entire month.”

The house they live in is paid for, but Lamb’s partner pays their utilities with his credit card.

“It’s not sustainable,” Lamb said.

To make Lamb’s situation even worse, Lamb experienced symptoms of fever, nausea and high blood pressure but could not get tested for COVID-19 despite four requests, and kept getting referred back and forth between his primary care physician and off-site testing facilities without ever getting tested.

Lamb said he would rather be working but, in the meantime, just wants an explanation of why his application for state unemployment insurance remains pending.

“I’ve triple-checked my application information and don’t believe there are any errors or omissions,” he said. “So it’s absurd to just keep resubmitting my application over and over again if no one is even going to bother informing me what is supposedly wrong with it. … I’ve gotten nothing but busy signals when I’ve called every UI office in the state.”

Many of the people who lined up in their vehicles Monday in Hauula for donated food had similar stories.

Glenn Ani, a laid-off Hauula construction worker, said his bills keep coming even though he’s still waiting for his application for state unemployment insurance and PUA funds to be approved.

Asked about the status of his unemployment insurance request, Ani said it’s “pending, pending, pending.”

But the bills keep coming, including his union dues.

“I’m slipping behind,” Ani said. “By the time I get it (unemployment insurance), the damage will be done.”

On Monday, Carlos Mozo joined 34 other volunteers who showed up at the Hauula Community Association to help distribute food — before volunteering at two more food distribution sites later in the day.

Mozo, a freelance photographer, lost all of his wedding gigs and two hotel contracts when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

His application for unemployment insurance was approved just last week, but Mozo said it will not make up for two months of lost wages.

But Mozo continues to help distribute food every week to help those who are even worse off.

“We’ve got to help each other,” he said.

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