Thurston Gomez believed that he had brought his family into a somewhat stable position.
After a period of unemployment during the pandemic, Gomez found a full-time job as a maintenance worker, secured stable housing with the help of Section 8 vouchers, and successfully applied for food assistance benefits through the state.
Then last November, Gomez received a $1 per hour raise, raising his pay to $17 per hour. An extra $160 a month wasn’t enough to lift Gomez’s family out of poverty, but Gomez says it resulted in the loss of $972 a month in food aid that he, his wife and their 10-year-old daughter were receiving. .
This summer, Gomez had to choose between paying rent and buying groceries. He was two months late paying rent, before community organizations and family helped him catch up.
“I’ve been under more pressure than I’ve ever been in my entire life,” Gomez said.
Food distribution organizations say the increase in people like Gomez who have faced what’s known as the “benefit cliff,” along with rising food costs and the end of other pandemic-era assistance programs, is leading to an unexpected rise in demand for food assistance.
“We’ve had reports from across the state from people saying they’re seeing some of the longest distribution lines they’ve seen since the early days of the pandemic,” said Daniela Spoto, director of the Hawaii Appleseed Anti-Hunger Initiatives.
The Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center has seen a 30% increase in participation at keiki and kupuna food distribution sites in the past six weeks. The Food Basket, a food bank on the Big Island, is back to serving about 50,000 people a month – a number lower than it was at the height of the pandemic, but still well above the 14,000 people a month seeking help before the pandemic.
Both organizations are seeing a marked increase in the number of seniors seeking nutritional assistance.
Many seniors tell food distribution workers that, like Gomez, they lost access to SNAP or other assistance programs after receiving small increases in their retirement benefits.
In January, the Social Security Administration gave beneficiaries a 5.9% cost-of-living adjustment — the largest one-year adjustment for benefits in four decades. This increase was intended to address the burden of inflation, but it may contribute to the loss of a minority of those receiving much-needed food assistance.
A spokesperson for the Hawaii Department of Human Services said in an emailed statement that the agency understands the frustration of individuals and families who slightly overstepped the eligibility line. However, income eligibility and benefit levels are determined by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service and are not controlled by the state.
“It’s life or death for some of these couponers because they have to choose between medication, rent and food,” said Alicia Higa, director of community health and wellness promotion at Waianae Comp. “not so good.”
Accepting the request
At the same time that this demand is growing again, the donations and grants that poured in at the start of the pandemic are starting to run out.
At the height of the pandemic, the food basket needed to rent additional storage space to hold all the food in it. Now shelves in Hilo warehouses are frequently empty.
Whatever comes in comes out instantly,” said Kristen Frost Albrecht, CEO of The Food Basket.
The food basket saw a significant drop in shipments last year from the Federal Goods Surplus Program that typically provides a large percentage of basic foods to the store. As a result, the food basket has to reduce the amount of food it provides to program participants each week.
“We would like to give people a lot of food but it just doesn’t happen,” said Frost Albrecht. “We have to be very careful what we deliver.”
Ongoing food supply chain challenges are also a problem. Even when a lunch cart buys food to supplement donations, orders are canceled and shipments are erratic.
“It’s the biggest challenge of my time in food banking,” Frost Albrecht said. “We don’t actually know where to go anymore. Because we buy food and even then we can’t necessarily get the food we need when we need it.”
Waianae Comp is adding two school distribution sites to keep up with demand. At the start of the school year, the nonprofit was seeing about 1,200 kids a week picking up food, a number that grew to nearly 1,800 kids a week in September.
“Resources at home are limited, you know, parents encourage their kids to stop at the pantry to pick up foods from the pantry,” Higa said.
Demand has also increased significantly on sites targeting the elderly. Waianae Comp this month added a new weekly food distribution event at an affordable housing complex for seniors in Kapolei, after workers on the site said they regularly see seniors who skip meals and can’t afford food. About 140 people took part in the first event – in a building of 143 units.
Finding financing to meet all this need is a huge challenge.
Higa said her team was thrilled to receive a large grant this year to support the Kubona food ration program. The grant covered some administrative expenses and provided $603,750 for food purchases—a sum Higa expects to last through the end of June. Now expect to run out of money in February.
The need is widespread.
Waianae wasn’t planning to hold a big food distribution event until the holiday season. But so many people were contacting the office with stories like Gomez’s, which prompted the organization to seek funding for food distribution in September. They opened registration for the event on Monday, and all 1,700 available places were filled in less than four hours.
“The past six weeks have been very open,” Higa said. “People are really struggling.”