Despite Disasters, Food Basket Still Finds Way to Fill up Families During Holidays
December 25, 2021, 6:30 AM HST
It seems like it’s been one emergency after another since Kristin Frost Albrecht became executive director of The Food Basket, Hawai‘i Island’s food bank.
She took on the post full-time a week before the 2018 Kīlauea eruption started. Then there was Hurricane Lane and a partial shutdown of the federal government. Each of those emergencies saw the food bank assisting hundreds of Big Island residents or more.
Then 2020 happened.
The COVID-19 pandemic has strained the food bank and its staff. An organization that used to depend on volunteers, many of whom are kupuna, had to shift to its small staff providing the vast majority of its services.
“What we found, because a lot of our pantries and partner agencies were not able to staff with volunteers because of the virus – a lot of our volunteers are elderly and health compromised and they have some immunocompromised thing going on – so it meant that we did a lot of direct service,” said Frost Albrecht.
The Food Basket is helping between 40,000 and 50,000 people a month with food needs through its various services, including the ‘Ohana Food Drops that have become familiar events around the island. The organization has hosted 165 of the food drops since the beginning of the pandemic, conducting its last one of 2021 on Dec. 8.
During the height of the pandemic, when the state was locked down in 2020, the agency was serving about 84,000 people each month. Pre-pandemic, the food bank, during its busiest time, served in the neighborhood of 14,000 people each month.
“So things have come down, but that’s still a tremendous increase over what, you know, what level used to be considered normal,” Frost Albrecht said. “It’s just that the need has really increased.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, about 85% of the people the food bank was serving through its disaster relief were unemployed, many newly unemployed. Frost Albrecht said that has transitioned somewhat since. The agency continues to help the unemployed and underemployed but also now serves many people who were impacted by the coronavirus itself.
“They’ve gotten sick and they’re dealing with, still, the ongoing trauma of that, depending on that situation,” she said.
The Food Basket also is serving a lot of people who care for an elderly parent or children who might have health issues. Frost Albrecht said families are dealing with sometimes erratic situations at school, even kids having to get sent home to quarantine, which also is contributing to the continued need the agency is seeing.
“So we’re seeing parents try to work jobs and juggle making sure the kids are appropriately cared for, too,” Frost Albrecht said. “It’s just been a tough, tough time.”
Combine the number of people still in need of assistance with other issues such as higher food prices and supply chain problems and that means the food bank’s shelves don’t stay full very long.
“We’ve been serving a lot of people. It’s a far greater amount than we ever served pre-pandemic,” Frost Albrecht said. “And it means our warehouses, they’re just … everything comes in and everything goes back out very quickly.”
Those same issues also make it hard for some families, many of whom already are paying higher housing prices, to make ends meet. Those working families also are seeking assistance.
“They are coming by to pick up and help with their holiday meals and just for their everyday meals,” Frost Albrecht said. “Sadly, by the time people pay their rent and they pay for their health care and make sure they’ve got clothes for their kids and shoes on their feet or slippers, sometimes there’s just no money left for food.”
With normal resources limited, the food bank had to adapt to make sure it could continue to serve those in need. It’s hired additional staff, added vehicles and even modified some of how it gets food. Before COVID, food banks typically never purchased their own food, relying mostly on donations. The Food Basket still receives donations, but it also received grant funds to purchase food locally, a key to the agency’s ability to provide relief to the hundreds of thousands of people it’s served throughout the pandemic.
Frost Albrecht said the secret to food security is making sure there is enough food on the island to feed those who need it. Buying it locally further supports the food bank’s mission and goals.
“Our local producers saved the day for us and for the people who were hungry,” she said. “We were able to purchase food locally throughout the pandemic and that’s really what’s gotten us through.”
The pandemic has proven to be a game-changer on many fronts for the organization, but now two year in and The Food Basket’s staff is tired. And, like many others, they’re tired of the pandemic, too.
“It’s really, it is really wrapping our heads around the new normal,” Frost Albrecht said.
She remembers when the Delta variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 showed up on the scene earlier this year, causing yet another spike in cases for several months.
“Things had just started to open up, people were making plans to see each other in person, and I felt like delta ripped the rug from underneath our feet,” Frost Albrecht said. “I mean, it was just this low point of no please tell me this isn’t true.”
Now with the Omicron variant making headlines, it’s just more of the same.
“So Omicron feels a little more like, ‘OK, here we are again,'” Frost Albrecht said, adding that for whatever reason, the newest COVID development “doesn’t feel as devastating because I think we’re already kind of are starting to adjust to this is the new normal, you know.”
That’s life now – getting a booster shot when told to, social distancing, wearing masks, etc. And the audible sighs Frost Albrecht made while talking about the situation made the pandemic fatigue that much more apparent.
“We’re just all really tired,” she said. “So tired of it.”
Their work is emotionally and physically taxing at times. But despite the exhaustion and malaise, the agency and its staff have not lost sight of their calling.
“Everybody does work with a great deal of compassion,” Frost Albrecht said. “They believe in our mission of ending hunger, and I can say they’re just an absolutely stellar group.”
And the Big Island also steps up to help when it’s needed, through donations and other support.
“I have to just say that this island, I don’t think the community here could allow somebody to go hungry,” Frost Albrecht said. “There has been overwhelming generosity, in so many ways, shapes and forms. Our local government has been awesome. They partnered with us every step of the way. The National Guard, you know, we we’ve had them with us also, every step of the way. There’s a lot of love for people’s neighbors, families and friends here and it’s so beautiful to see it in action. It gives me chicken skin just thinking about it.”
Anyone who needs food assistance is free to contact the food bank. The easiest way to get help is by visiting the agency’s website. Residents also can call 808-933-6030 in Hilo or 808-322-1418 in Kona.
“We’re always happy to make sure that anybody who needs food has food,” Frost Albrecht said. “We’re here for them.”
For the holidays, Frost Albrecht and The Food Basket send out the message of love and community.
“Just love your neighbor,” she said. “I think it’s as easy as that. I am just, again, so grateful for the people of this island who care so deeply about each other and help each other out. I think we’re incredibly resilient here because people really do give of themselves and they give generously and they give often.”
One of the most powerful things that the food bank and its staff have witnessed in the past couple of years is people in line at a food drop who had never been there before who become those walking into the agency’s offices later to offer a donation to make sure there is enough to help another family who finds itself in need.
“So, it’s just a big circle of people who keep giving back, and if they need it, I mean, we’re a bank right? If you need it come take a withdrawal. We’re here for you,” Frost Albrecht said. “That’s the beautiful story – this community is a very special place.”