Long accustomed to meeting seemingly limitless need with decidedly lean resources, organizations dedicated to feeding Maui’s hungry have found their daily challenges compounded during the coronavirus pandemic.
In response, humanitarian organizations on the island have combined efforts, streamlined operations and explored new avenues of support to ensure that a dramatic increase in those needing assistance is adequately met and that volunteers and the people they serve aren’t needlessly exposed in the process.
“It’s unprecedented,” said Rich Yust, executive director of the Maui Food Bank. “In 15 years doing this, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In a typical April, the food bank provides between 200,000 and 220,000 pounds of food to organizations and agencies to distribute to those in need. This April, that total skyrocketed to 536,000 pounds.
On average, food provided by the food bank serves up to 12,000 people per month. Over the past two months, 6,000 to 10,000 people per week have relied on distributions, Yust said.
The food bank used to ship up to 16 pallets of donated food to Molokai for distribution. It now sends about 20 pallets twice a month.
The increase manifested swiftly as government-mandated restrictions, designed to control the spread of COVID-19, shuttered nonessential agencies and businesses and left an estimated 37,000 Maui residents newly unemployed.
“The majority of people we’re seeing now have never had to ask (for food) before,” Yust said. “They’ve worked their whole life but now don’t have a job. They have no funds left to buy food.
“The face of hunger has certainly changed in the last four months,” he said.
The increased demand comes at the same time donations from traditional sources have evaporated.
The food bank typically gets 60% of the food it distributes via regular donations from retailers and wholesalers.
“That dried up by the end of March,” Yust said. “Now it’s less than 5%. There’s been a huge decrease in what’s coming in.”
Compounding the problem, regularly scheduled community food drives have been suspended, including the annual letter carrier campaign that typically brings in 50,000 pounds of food in a single day. In addition, regular commodities shipments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture were interrupted, for unknown reasons, from March until the last week of May, when a single shipment of chicken was received.
“Normally, we get five to eight shipments per month,” Yust said. “We’ll probably catch up in August or September, but it’s a little late. It was needed in April and May.”
THE FOOD bank has survived in large part due to the increased generosity of individuals and foundations, which have allowed it to purchase food for distribution.
The Hawaii Community Foundation has so far provided grants of $130,000 and $100,000 to keep things going. The Nuestro Futuro Foundation recently provided a grant of $150,000.
Yust said the food bank purchased about $500,000 in food last month, including goods and produce from local farms and bakeries.
The organization recently supplemented its 10,000- square-foot warehouse in the Wailuku Industrial Area with a rented 6,000-square-foot space to store the larger stock.
To minimize unnecessary contact and to make operations more efficient, several agencies and organizations have collaborated to funnel resources to larger, established distribution channels.
A Cup of Cold Water, a community outreach program that delivers food, hygiene items and clothes to unsheltered populations around the island, suspended its usual van deliveries in Central Maui, Lahaina and Kihei to minimize the risk of transmitting COVID- 19 among vulnerable homeless communities and its own volunteers, many of whom are at higher risk for serious complications due to age or health.
“We still want to serve, but we also want to protect our volunteers and the people we serve,” said Deb Lynch, chairwoman of the organization’s board of directors.
The organization now shares donated supplies — including slippers, hygiene items, clothes, towels and hand sanitizer — with the Salvation Army and Feed My Sheep for distribution to complement their food distributions.
“Most food services are doubling (in service),” Lynch said. “The unsheltered have been attended to quite well in that area.”
Still, Lynch said direct deliveries could resume soon if infection rates remain low.
“Now that things are opening up, we may be able to bring the van out again,” she said, noting the value of meeting with clients in person.
JOYCE Kawakami, founder of Feed My Sheep, said collaborating with other charitable organizations has made it possible to identify duplicate services and get a more accurate count of those in need islandwide, information that can help with current and future planning. The organization also coordinates with the Salvation Army and the national Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.
Kawakami said she and her volunteers are “excessively busy” but have yet to see community need hit the same level it did in the weeks and months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
The organization provided food to some 2,600 individuals in May, compared with 800 in February before coronavirus-related restrictions.
Feed My Sheep continues to provide no-contact, drive-up food distributions monthly in Hana and weekly in Lahaina, Wailuku, Kahului and Kihei. First-time recipients are allowed to register on-site as long as they bring proof of income or other documentation of need (including termination or furlough notices) and identification for each family member.
The work has been made easier recently by the donation of two drive-up distribution sites. Developer Peter Martin is providing Feed My Sheep access to a private road in Lahaina, and Alexander & Baldwin is letting the group use the former swap meet site on Puunene Avenue in Kahului. Both venues provide ample room for drive-up traffic that can stretch as far as a mile.
Feed My Sheep, the Maui Food Bank and other organizations have benefited from a farmer assistance and food distribution program, through which the county has committed some $150,000 to the Maui Farm Bureau and the Hawaii Farmers Union United to purchase food from local farmers for community distribution.
“It’s a lifesaver,” Kawakami said. “We now have quality food to get to people in need, and the need is immense.”
MANY organizations are bracing for the possibility of even greater need over the coming months. What happens if a second wave of COVID-19 infections hits in the fall, as some predict? What if the local economy is slow to recover? What happens when stimulus payments run out or the current moratorium on evictions ends?
Nora Cabanilla-Takushi, president of Binhi at Ani, said she and other Filipino community leaders are committed to doing whatever is necessary to feed the needy of Maui.
The group’s quick mobilization in response to the initial increase in those needing food assistance augurs well, she said. With just a few weeks of planning, she and a group of six other volunteers raised nearly $8,000 in cash and thousands more in in-kind donations for large-scale food distribution event held May 23.
Each of the more than 600 cars that drove through received two plate lunches (with pancit, pinakbet, adobo and other items donated by Four Sisters Kitchen), canned goods, fresh produce, eggs, bread, drinks, a McDonald’s gift card and a mask.
The event — which was manned by more than 100 volunteers, including Mayor Michael Victorino and members of the National Guard and Maui Police Department — took the place of the organization’s annual Barrio Fiesta, which was postponed (and likely canceled) for the first time in 51 years.
Another distribution is planned for June 27 with more to follow each month until the crisis is past.
“We’re excited to continue,” Cabanilla-Takushi said. “We’ll go on. That’s our goal.”