Cupboards appearing at the Big Island Food Bank

While there were supplies on some shelves Wednesday at The Food Basket warehouse in Hilo, they won’t be there as long as the food bank remains historically short of food supplies. (Photos by Nathan Christofel/Big Island Now)

When times were tough, Kauaokawehi Kailianu and some of her family members relied on services at The Food Basket to help them avoid starvation.

“It was a nice little backbone or part of the support to get resources when it’s necessary,” Kailianu said.

Now, times are tough on the food basket. Her closets are bare.

Carlos Rivera and Andres Sandoval with Courtestown’s Assembly of God pantry pick up food Wednesday from the Hilo Food Basket Depot.

Food shipments of up to 100,000 pounds per month began to dwindle several months ago.

At first, the stock slowly declined. But in August, no shipments from the federal government arrived. So far in September, only four food stands have arrived, Sarah Kritikos, a warehouse manager for Hello.

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As a result, the food basket is experiencing a historic decline in the amount of food available with many shelves in the Hilo warehouse empty. The Big Island’s only food bank used to have 4-5 days of supplies on hand in the extra warehouse, but now it’s fortunate to have half a day. Once the food arrives through the doors, it goes out to those in need.

“We’ve never had this problem before,” said Kristen Frost Albrecht, CEO of The Food Basket.

The shortage was caused by a perfect storm of disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain issues, and spiraling inflation. The food bank was receiving less government aid, forcing him to try to buy the majority of his food. It’s a big change for the organization – and not sustainable, Albrecht said.

The shortage comes at a time when the need is growing. The nonprofit said it serves about 50,000 people a month, on an island of just over 200,000. Lines have become longer during emergency food distributions in Hilo and Kona and many pantry partners across the island are also experiencing spikes in the number of people they serve.

“It can be a little scary at times, and I’m not going to lie, because I have a lot of family members who come in and use the services here,” said Cailiano, Quality Assurance Coordinator for DA BUX Double of the Food Basket Up Food Bucks Program.

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Kritikos said that buying food was a challenge with items not available and orders never being met. Of course, it costs money.

If the food basket were to fill its shelves to the brim, it would cost about $300,000 a month. She doesn’t have that kind of money and spends about $50,000 a month to get what she can. With inflation, $50,000 isn’t going as far as it used to be with wholesale food prices going through the roof.

As a result, the food basket has had to provide less and more variety of food to those in need. It’s “heartbreaking and not something we like to do,” Albrecht said.

Kristen Frost Albrecht, CEO of Food Basket, spoke Wednesday at Hilo Warehouse about the historic decline in food supplies plaguing the food bank.

The Food Basket Board has discussed what it might do if food runs out and is trying to find creative ways to help.

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

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The food bank is also partnered with Hawaiian Community College and Honua Ola, a bioenergy facility in eastern Hawaii. Honua Ola provided 3 acres of land to the Department of Agriculture at the Community College for students to grow crops. Ninety percent of the produce grown there is donated to The Food Basket.

Work is also under way to create an agricultural innovation park and a food systems campus on 24.5 acres of Bonnaway Street in Hilo. The Food Basket campus will include agricultural and forestry crop production, commercial kitchens, processing facilities, technical assistance programs, streamlined food distribution, standardized food storage, educational and retail programs.

Albrecht is convinced that the Food Basket with the capacity to grow, harvest and process its own food is a sustainable solution to providing food security on the Big Island.

“There are some of this beautiful kind of partnership that comes up where everyone is in the same state of mind and they say, ‘We can do this,'” she said.

Albrecht said the food basket is currently suffering from donor fatigue. The community has been constantly asked to help during the food crisis.

“We need tons, tons of food, to serve the island,” Kritikos said. “A little helps, frankly. I know everyone is hurting now and we appreciate all the donors and everything they’ve done for us so far, they’ve been amazing. We hate asking for more, but when I see the shelves and I know in my mind, without making a calculation, roughly how long it will last, Which is like two months.”

Chiliano said the food basket could use financial or food donations, as well as people’s time.

Sweet Food Basket Store.

With the holidays fast approaching, there is a greater need for people to offer help.

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

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

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