More hands held out, but less food to give away
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
Every week, more people are lining up at Cindy Bauer's doorstep for food.
"The increase has been phenomenal," said Bauer, the director of Send Hope, a food distribution center and emergency pantry in Kalihi Valley. "I think we as a city need to care."
Three years after a legislative task force called for long-term solutions to curb hunger in the Islands, Bauer is one of several advocates for the poor across the state calling for more attention to the problem. They say the demand for emergency food assistance is increasing as the cost of housing and utilities rises.
The Hawaii Foodbank fed 131,862 people last year through its 250 member agencies on O'ahu, the Big Island, Maui and Kaua'i, according to the 2006 Hunger in America survey.
The number is up by almost 14,000 people from 2001, when the previous Hunger in America report was completed.
Other agencies also are reporting increased need.
Bauer, who heads the program, a division of Surfing the Nations, said she has seen lines at the distribution center grow dramatically over the past year. In recent months, about 300 people have arrived at the site on Thursdays to pick up food. Many are members of large families.
Last year, the average line was about 200 people long.
The Salvation Army's food pantry in Kalihi also has seen an increase in people needing food.
About 3,490 people have received food aid through the program this year, compared with about 3,132 in 2005.
The pantry is open from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. five days a week, and families are allowed to come once a month, said Jan Yokota, director of the program.
Yokota said it's difficult to pinpoint what is contributing to the increase, but she doesn't expect the trend to change anytime soon.
Foodbank President Dick Grimm said "the majority" of agencies that get food from the nonprofit have reported a trend of increasing need over the course of the year. To meet the demand, more pantries are being forced to limit their handouts. And at least one nonprofit is planting a community garden to supply more families with fruits and vegetables.
The increase in need comes as the Foodbank is seeing a drop in donations from several sources.
Meanwhile, advocates contend that while the state is busy trying to stem a growing homeless population, it is offering relatively few services to those whose incomes are just above the federal poverty level. Advocates suspect it is those working families contributing to the demand for food aid.
Recently released statistics from 2004, conducted as part of the Hawai'i Health Survey, show about 26 percent of households with annual incomes between $20,000 to $29,999 were considered "food insecure," meaning they didn't know where their next meal was coming from.
About 11.5 percent reported that their households sometimes did not have enough to eat.
Meanwhile, about 11.6 percent of households with annual incomes from $30,000 to $39,999 were tagged as food insecure. Statewide, there were about 9,080 households in which adults sometimes went hungry, and nearly 1,000 households in which children did not eat for a day or longer.
The statistics nearly mirrored 2003 figures, according to SMS Research, which conducted the survey.
The state Department of Health no longer includes food security questions in its annual health survey, so more recent figures are not available.
Nonprofits say that without statewide statistics, they must use their own numbers to determine the need — an unreliable process since many residents won't seek emergency food aid and instead get help from family members or even go hungry.
"There's a big element of shame involved," said Chris Chun, executive director of Aloha Harvest, which distributes produce and other perishable foods to nearly 40,000 people on O'ahu every month through 105 agencies. "There's probably not one of those agencies that hasn't seen an increase in the number of people they're serving."
In 2002, officials from nearly 20 nonprofits and state agencies gathered to discuss long-term solutions to hunger and food insecurity in the Islands. In its January 2003 report, the Food Security Task Force called for the creation of a government-funded council to deal with the problem.
But a bill to establish the council died shortly after its introduction, and the task force disbanded.
Now, members of the task force say they're disappointed nothing came of the effort, but are eager to renew efforts to bring attention to hunger and food insecurity in the Islands.
Some also say the state should take a lead role in addressing the problem, either in the form of a council or a new task force.
"It's hard to really bring all those players together," said Havinne Okamura, program director at Aloha United Way's 211 referral service.
'I'M HERE FOR MY FAMILY'
Requests for emergency food pantries are one of the service's top five referrals. This year, 2,485 people statewide have called for help contacting food banks or pantries.
In 2005, 2,973 people called for food assistance.
Grimm, of the Hawai'i Foodbank, said more state funding for food programs is needed to supplement waning donations and allocations for federally funded programs.
In the 2006 fiscal year, which ended in June, the Foodbank gave out 8 million pounds of food. Three years earlier, the Foodbank was able to distribute some 900,000 more pounds of food, according to figures.
Grimm said the decrease in donations — from corporate sponsors, individual residents and the federal government — has meant fewer people can be helped.
In fiscal year 2006, the food was given out over the course of about 578,263 distributions to individuals or families, many of whom were repeat visitors. In 2003, there were 676,206 distributions.
At Send Hope in Kalihi Valley on Thursday, a light rain fell as people waited under canopy trees for the food line to open. Some had waited for hours, not wanting to risk missing a pickup or being left out of the precious perishables doled out each week.
Berlyn Eclipse watched her bouncy 3-year-old play as she waited to pick up produce, bread and sundries for her family of four. The 33-year-old started coming to the distribution center about six months ago, when the household income would no longer cover anything more than rent and utilities. Eclipse said she and her husband earn just over minimum wage.
"It's really, really hard," she said. "I'm here for my family."
Reach Mary Vorsino at firstname.lastname@example.org.