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Food aid fails to keep up with need among Hawaii’s hungry

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                                Free meals were available last year for children through age 18 regardless of eligibility for subsidized lunch, on weekdays at various schools in the state Department of Education’s free grab-and-go meal serv­ice on Oahu, Maui, Hawaii island and Kauai.


    Free meals were available last year for children through age 18 regardless of eligibility for subsidized lunch, on weekdays at various schools in the state Department of Education’s free grab-and-go meal serv­ice on Oahu, Maui, Hawaii island and Kauai.

Nearly half of all households with children in Hawaii are “food insecure,” with 15% simply not having enough to eat, according to a new report from the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s College of Social Sciences.

The figures show that the coronavirus pandemic is still hitting island families hard, despite a dramatic expansion of aid programs over the past year and small signs of economic recovery.

The study, “Addressing Hunger and Food Insecurity Among Hawaii’s Families,” released Thursday, reflects responses from local residents as recently as March 1 to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, as well as interviews with stakeholders and data from various agencies.

“What is really concerning to me is that we’ve seen an increase in service providers, we’ve seen expansion of benefits programs and meals programs, which is great, but we still see a high need,” said Anna Pruitt, an author of the report. “And when we look at our data, the people who most need services are the ones least likely to get them.”

Pruitt is a community psychologist and faculty affiliate at the UH Psychology Department. Other authors of the report are Jack Barile, interim director of the Social Science Research Institute, and UH colleagues Omar Bird, Brad Nakamura, Yanyan Wu and Wei Zhang.

“Survey data shows that food insecurity has increased for families with children since the pandemic began and remains high into 2021,” the report said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “food security” as having enough of the food a family wants; “low food security” as having enough but not the type of food wanted; and “very low food security” as not having enough to eat.

As of March, 15% of Hawaii households with children said they did not have enough to eat, 33% had low food security and 52% reported being food secure.

Pruitt said Hawaii residents used to have better food security than the national average, but the Aloha State is now in worse shape. Among all households across the country, not only those with children, 63% reported being food secure in February of this year, as compared with 57% in Hawaii.

“COVID-19 has really impacted our unemployment rate in Hawaii, and I think that is one of the main drivers of this kind of sharp increase,” Pruitt said.

Virtually all Hawaii households without enough food said it was because they couldn’t afford it, and three- quarters reported they had lost employment income due to the pandemic.

Despite pandemic cash payments, enhanced federal food benefits and free grab- and-go meals at schools, some families at the lower rungs aren’t getting the help they need, especially those with little education.

Only 54% of households with “very low food security” received free food in the previous week, and the vast majority was from friends and family, not formal services, the report found. Those families are also less likely to get free meals from schools.

The UH study pointed to various barriers that need to be addressed:

>> A lack of public awareness of available services

>> Shame about needing to use food services

>> Transportation (some food distributions are drive-up only)

>> Difficulty receiving benefits without a stable address

>> Lack of a coordinated plan statewide for addressing food insecurity

Among all families in Hawaii with children, 23% reported receiving free food in March. The top sources of such help were food pantry or food banks; community programs; family, friends and neighbors; religious institutions; and school and other meal programs aimed at children.

The Department of Education quickly shifted to offering grab-and-go meals to any child up to age 18 when schools closed in March 2020. That program has been extended through the end of this academic year and is now operating at 194 of the state’s 257 public schools. Other campuses provide free meals just to their enrolled students.

The Hawaii Foodbank distributed close to 26 million pounds of food from March 2020 until February, as compared with the 12 million pounds of food given out in a typical fiscal year, according to Marielle Terbio, director of community engagement and advocacy at the food bank.

“There are so many people who are out of work that need the support,” she said. “When you go to the distribution sites, that’s what you hear. They have been out of a job for months, and they are basically relying on this food to feed their families.”

In addition to its traditional services providing food to pantries and partner agencies, the food bank has been holding pop-up food distributions weekly in different areas of the island.

“They fill up within the first five minutes of registration opening,” Terbio said. “We encourage families to go to other distribution sites in their areas. Our website shows a list depending on where they live, with days and times they are operating.”

The UH study calls for tailored approaches to meet the needs of specific communities, including people who are unsheltered or in unstable housing, and may not be able to store food safely or secure benefits they deserve.

It suggested possible solutions such as outreach and delivery services, universal free meals in public schools, and expanding the Double Up Food Bucks program, which supports local farmers as well as hungry people.

It also offered long-term policy solutions such as increasing wages, dealing with housing insecurity and expanding employment opportunities in rural areas.

Despite the challenges, Pruitt was heartened by how much the community has done to respond to people’s escalating needs over the past year.

“There’s so many people and programs that are just doing a remarkable job,” Pruitt said. “How they’ve done this during the pandemic is beyond me.”


To find a food assistance program near you, visit or call 211.

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