Hawaiʻi sees ‘startling’ increase in number of children facing hunger

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Hawaiʻi’s hunger rates were lower than national averages. Today, the Aloha State’s situation is worse than national levels—a striking shift, according to local researchers.

The data, collected via the U.S. Census Bureau’s ‘Household Pulse Survey,’ is the topic of a new report from the University of Hawaiʻi which found nearly half of Hawaiʻi families with children reported struggling to pay for meals as of March.

“The rates were roughly in the 10 percent ball park pre-COVID, and they’re close to 50 percent currently,” said Jack Barile, the interim director of the University of Hawaiʻi Manoa’s Social Science Research Institute. “The majority of people facing food insecurity now are facing it for the first time or in recent history, so that’s kind of startling.”

The surge in food insecurity is driven by Hawaiʻi’s record unemployment rates, which persisted as the highest in the nation as of February. About three-quarters of families that said they struggled to pay for food during the U.S. Census interviews reported losing income during the pandemic.

The consequences of Hawaiʻi’s worsening food insecurity will likely have a lasting impact on children’s health that could take years to measure. According to the report, Hawaiʻi’s hunger trends mirror increasing rates of anxiety and depression in the state, and those interviewed who were having trouble affording food for the first time said it was affecting their mental health.

Local experts worry that families who never qualified for assistance before are missing out on benefits because they are not familiar with how to navigate the system. Of the families that reported the most struggle to afford food, only about a fifth of them were signed up for financial assistance.

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