The pandemic has transformed how aid groups help elderly in need

Dining programs at churches and community centers were canceled to avoid virus transmission. Family and friends had to keep a distance. And the economic impact on families undoubtedly had a toll on seniors living in multigenerational and low-income households.

But those involved with efforts to make sure kupuna in need have enough food say new momentum has emerged over the past year. For the first time, a patchwork of meal delivery services has transformed into a statewide coalition of 40 organizations working in tandem as part of the Kupuna Food Security Coalition.

The number of home deliveries to seniors who were considered the most vulnerable to the virus “exploded,” said Daniela Spoto, the anti-hunger initiatives director at the Hawaiʻi Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice.

Federal COVID-19 relief funds boosted efforts to provide local and more nutritious produce for seniors. And meal deliveries are no longer just about dropping off bentos. Now, providers stop to check in with seniors about their health and any other issues they might be having.

Overall, Hawaii suffered a 50 percent increase in rates of hunger from 2018 to 2020—one of the largest in the country, according to Feeding America. A University of Hawaiʻi report published in March illustrated how that affected children and families.

But the true extent of how the pandemic affected seniors and their food security has yet to be captured by data.

An estimated 16,700 kupuna in Hawaiʻi were at risk of hunger before the pandemic took hold, prompting lockdowns and restrictions that left many elderly isolated, according to a January 2020 report by the Hawaiʻi Appleseed Center.

Another way to measure hunger is by participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which grew by 20 percent in Hawaiʻi from December 2019 to December 2020.

Today, among the 189,000 people currently enrolled in the program, 15 percent are at least 60 years old, according to the Hawaiʻi Department of Human Services. The program helps people pay for food.

“This is a really big issue and it was kind of invisible before the pandemic,” Spoto said, adding that many more kupuna would likely qualify for the assistance but have not signed up.

An estimated half of eligible seniors in Hawaiʻi are missing out on SNAP, which provides financial assistance for groceries, largely because of a perceived stigma associated with such programs, she said. The Appleseed report found seniors are among the least likely to sign up for programs like SNAP.

“People are a little more averse to feeling like they should have to accept help,” said Spoto. “Maybe it’s a generational thing or something they’ve been taught.”

Spoto and other community partners have been working to counter that belief.

“You are within your rights and you shouldn’t feel ashamed for taking advantage of the public benefits that society offers to you,” she said.