One-and-a-quarter billion dollars. That’s how much Hawaii received from the federal CARES Act to respond to the economic fallout caused by the pandemic.
This week, the Hawaii Legislature reconvenes to decide the fate of $635 million from this CARES Act pot. In a proposal announced on Friday, the Legislature laid out a plan to spend these funds. The bulk of the money would go toward unemployment insurance, rental assistance and support for certain small businesses.
The plan also calls for $5 million in food assistance to support families, run through the state’s Executive Office on Aging. While this is a start, it falls short of the $40 million in estimated need projected by the Working Families Coalition, which would include support for both families and for farmers to meet the need locally.
It cannot be overstated: The need for food is immense. The incredible spike in need has crippled Hawaii’s supply chains and overwhelmed our emergency food networks.
In a cruel paradox, it is Hawaii’s rural communities — those that produce our food — that are suffering the most. On Hawaii island, nearly a quarter of the workforce is now unemployed, and it’s not whom you might expect: farm vans are lining up for food right alongside hospitality industry vehicles. In fact, The Food Basket (Hawaii island’s Food Bank) has seen triple the volume of individuals seeking food assistance, and 75-85% of its clientele are now “first-time food bank users.”
Kupuna are also particularly affected. Lanakila Meals on Wheels has seen an increase of over 30% in the number of seniors fed through its home-delivered meal service. In total, kupuna-serving organizations have provided nearly 28,000 meals to 5,000 seniors a week on Oahu alone, according to numbers compiled by the Kupuna Food Security Coalition.
The good news is that managing the unprecedented deluge has led to a great deal of innovation.
“The key,” says Rona Fukumoto, Lanakila’s president, “is to directly link with local farms to establish a win-win relationship — one where we can purchase produce at an affordable price, while creating a reasonable profit for farmers.”
Similarly, The Food Basket has quickly pivoted its pandemic response — bolstering its already comprehensive repertoire of programs by expanding its supply chain sources. It now sources food from over 100 farmers, ranchers and fisherman, and partners with local restaurants and distributors to produce ready-to-eat frozen meals for emergency food distributions.
Absent any meaningful support from the state since the start of the pandemic, Hawaii philanthropists have stepped up in a big way. But the truth is, we can’t rely on charity forever. We need institutional support — in the form of federal stimulus funds and ongoing support from the state — in order to stabilize the situation. That’s why programs that leverage federal dollars are the cornerstone of the Hawaii Farm to Family CARES Act proposal.
This crisis has shattered life as we know it. Once we swing past it, it may be hard to remember what life was like before. “World War II brought us SPAM,” says Hunter Heaivilin, food resilience coordinator at the Hawaii Public Health Institute. “What will COVID-19’s legacy be for Hawaii’s food system?”
As the Legislature reconvenes to decide the fate of these funds, it should know: People need food now. It may be our once-in-a-lifetime chance to pivot toward the kind of food system we want for Hawaii’s future.