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Cupboards Getting Bare at Big Island’s Food Bank

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While there were supplies on some shelves Wednesday at The Food Basket warehouse in Hilo, they won’t be there long as the food bank continues to experience historic shortages in food supplies. (Photos by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

When times have been hard, Kauaokawehi Kailianu and some of her family members have relied on the services at The Food Basket to help them from going hungry.

“It was a nice little backbone or piece of support to have the resource when it was necessary,” Kailianu said.

Now, times are tough for The Food Basket. Its cupboards are getting bare.

Carlos Rivera and Andres Sandoval with the Kurtistown Assembly of God pantry pick up food Wednesday from The Food Basket warehouse in Hilo.

The food shipments, which used to be about 100,000 pounds a month, began dwindling several months ago.

At first, inventory slowly decreased. But in August, no shipments arrived from the federal government. So far in September, just four pallets of food have arrived, said Sara Kritikos, manager of the Hilo warehouse.

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As a result, The Food Basket is experiencing an historic low in the amount of food it has available with many shelves at the Hilo warehouse empty. The Big Island’s only food bank used to have 4 to 5 days of supplies on hand at its auxiliary warehouse, but now it is lucky to have half a day’s worth. As quickly as food comes through the doors, it goes out to those in need.

“We’ve never had this issue before,” said Kristin Frost Albrecht, executive director of The Food Basket.

The shortage has been caused by a perfect storm of disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain issues and skyrocketing inflation. The food bank has been receiving less government aid, which has forced it to try to purchase the majority of its food. It is a big change for the organization — and not sustainable, Albrecht said.

The shortage comes at a time of rising need. The nonprofit said it serves about 50,000 people a month, on an island with a population of just over 200,000. Lines are getting longer during distributions of emergency food in Hilo and Kona and several of the food bank’s pantry partners around the island also are experiencing spikes in the number of people they serve.

“It can be a bit scary at times, I’m not gonna lie, because I have a lot of family members that come and utilize the services here,” said Kailianu, who is the quality assurance coordinator for The Food Basket’s DA BOX Community Supported Agriculture program.

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Kritikos said even purchasing food has been a challenge with items not available and orders never being fulfilled. And, of course, it costs money.

If The Food Basket was to fill its shelves to the brim, it would cost about $300,000 a month. It doesn’t have that kind of money and has been spending about $50,000 a month to get what it can. With inflation, $50,000 doesn’t go as far as it used to with the prices of wholesale food going through the roof.

As a result, The Food Basket has been forced to provide less variety and smaller amounts of food to the needy. Albrecht said it is “heartbreaking and not something we like to do.”

The Food Basket Executive Director Kristin Frost Albrecht on Wednesday at the Hilo warehouse speaks about the historic low in food supply the food bank is experiencing.

The Food Basket’s board has discussed what it can do if the food runs out and has been trying to find innovative ways to help.

It has programs available to help fill the gaps, including DA BUX, which operates statewide at more than 100 retail outlets including grocery stores, farmers markets and food hubs to provide a 50% discount on Hawai‘i-grown produce to food stamp recipients. Another program, Kōkua Harvest, provides fresh produce from backyard gardeners and farmers who donate excess harvest.

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The food bank also is partnering with Hawai‘i Community College and Honua Ola, a bioenergy facility in East Hawai‘i. Honua Ola provided 3 acres of land to the community college’s agriculture department for students to grow crops. Ninety percent of the produce grown there is donated to The Food Basket.

Plans also are in the works for an agricultural innovation park and food systems campus on 24.5 acres of land off Ponahawai Street in Hilo. The Food Basket campus would include agroforestry crop production, aquaponics, commercial kitchens, processing facilities, technical assistance programs, streamlined food distribution, consolidated food storage, education programs and retail.

Albrecht is convinced that The Food Basket having the ability to grow, harvest and process its own food is the sustainable solution to provide food security on the Big Island.

“There’s some of these beautiful kind of partnerships that are coming up where everybody’s in the same frame of mind and saying, ‘We can do this,'” she said. “I kind of hang on to that for hope because right now, it’s pretty bleak.”

Albrecht said The Food Basket is suffering from donor fatigue right now. The community has been constantly asked to help during the food crisis.

“We need tons, literally tons of food, to serve the island,” Kritikos said. “Any little bit helps, honestly. I know everybody’s hurting now and we appreciate all the donors and everything they have done so far for us, they’ve been amazing. We hate asking for more, but when I see the shelves and I know in my mind, without even doing calculations, roughly how much it will last, and it’s like a couple months.”

Kailianu said The Food Basket can use monetary or food donations, as well as people’s time.

The Food Basket warehouse in Hilo.

With the holidays quickly approaching, there is an even greater need for people to step up and offer their help.

Albrecht said: “We are just so grateful to this community for helping us and helping us serve the people who really need it.”

To donate to The Food Basket or to volunteer, click here.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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