comscore Ron Mizutani: COVID-19 pandemic puts pressure on Hawaii Foodbank and its president to meet a growing demand for food | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
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Ron Mizutani: COVID-19 pandemic puts pressure on Hawaii Foodbank and its president to meet a growing demand for food

  • GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM 
                                Ron Mizutani, President and CEO of Hawaii Foodbank.

    GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Ron Mizutani, President and CEO of Hawaii Foodbank.

How did the recent “virtual” Food Drive Day work out in terms of donations, both in-kind and cash contributions?

We made the decision to go virtual this year due to the uncertainties of COVID-19 and the increase in positive cases. We knew it was important to keep the spirit of Food Drive Day alive and emphasized a positive tone — saying Food Drive Day is adapting, transitioning and evolving this year rather than canceling.

We are extremely grateful that our generous community embraced our message of hope and responded with 1,049 online donations on Aug. 15 — totaling $148,696.24 for Oahu and Kauai.

Is the call for food continuing to grow, or has the need peaked? What kind of demand are you anticipating for the coming months?

We anticipate the needs of our communities to continue to grow as we’re seeing more Hawaii residents needing food assistance for the first time in their lives.

In March, we instantly saw a 26% spike in needs compared to the same time last year. In April, Hawaii Foodbank distributed 1,843,336 pounds of food on Oahu — an 85% increase from same time last year — and Hawaii Foodbank Kauai distributed more than 235,000 pounds of food on the Garden Island — a 102% increase.

Since Hawaii’s first positive case of COVID-19, we have distributed more than 13 million pounds of food on Oahu and Kauai in less than six months. In all of 2019, we distributed just more than 12 million pounds.

How would you assess the results of the Foodbank’s investment in purchasing from Hawaii farmers?

In mid-April, Hawaii Foodbank launched a strategic partnership with Hawaii Farm Bureau and committed to purchase $200,000 in local agricultural products for our food assistance programs. We recognized the importance of keeping Hawaii’s farmers farming while also providing nutritional food to those who need it most.

That relationship has flourished and thrived. As of Aug. 25, Hawaii Foodbank has purchased $772,367.28 of locally grown produce since April, while supporting 19 Hawaii farms in the process.

How are supplies of food available for import now, months into the pandemic?

At Hawaii Foodbank, one of our biggest challenges will always be matching food supply and demand. Hawaii’s geographic isolation poses hurdles that no other food bank faces.

With COVID-19 shuttering many workplaces and causing problems in the U.S. food supply chain, food banks across the country, including Hawaii Foodbank, are doing their best to balance massively increasing demand with limited supply.

Because of the pandemic, inventories across the supply chain have become low, delayed or bottlenecked. This issue is one of the main reasons we have increased local purchasing to fill the void.

While distribution numbers have significantly soared, physical food donations have slowed to a trickle … in accordance with public safety measures. In order to keep supply on pace with demand, Hawaii Foodbank has purchased more than $5.25 million worth of emergency food compared to our typical annual budget of $400,000.

The silver lining in all of this is the strengthening of longtime partnerships, as well as the cultivation of new relationships.

Hunger and poverty are persistent problems. How would you measure success in the Foodbank’s mission fulfillment?

The face of hunger in Hawaii has dramatically changed during this health crisis, not just in numbers, but also in the makeup of families needing food assistance — again, some for the first time in their lives.

During our 14 mass food distributions in April, May, June and July, our surveys showed 78-83% of those served were either unemployed or furloughed because of COVID-19. For many of those individuals, raising their hand took a tremendous amount of courage.

As more closures, stay-at-home orders and social distancing mandates extend across Hawaii, every community will feel the impact of this virus in one way or another.

Providing food to someone in need gives them much more than a meal. It brings them invaluable hope and inspiration for a better tomorrow. It is something Hawaii Foodbank has done for the past 35 years, and we will continue to do during this crisis and beyond.

THE BIO FILE

>> Professional background: President/CEO of Hawaii Foodbank since April 2018, after 33 years at KHON2, holding posts as sports producer, sports director, news reporter and anchor. Also worked at Hawaiian Telcom, Communications Pacific and as a sports clerk and writer at Honolulu Star-Bulletin while at University of Hawaii-Manoa.

>> Education: UH-Manoa, journalism, class of 1987; Kamehameha Schools, class of 1983.

>> Personal background: Children Dane, Haven and Tai-John; grandfather to 3-year-old Rylee. Ron and his wife Paige love to hike and travel.

>> Fun fact: Wants to write a romance novel.

>> One more thing: According to Feeding America, Hawaii has experienced the nation’s fifth-highest percentage increase in food insecurity, up from 11.2% in 2018, to 17.5% after COVID-19.

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