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Food bank shares concerns over food insecurity

HONOLULU — Nearly one in three households in the state experienced food insecurity last year, and in 29 percent of households with children, at least one child faced food insecurity, according to the Hawai‘i Foodbank’s 2023 report released on Wednesday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced earlier this year that children in Hawai‘i can receive $177 in Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer funds through the federal SUN Bucks grocery benefits program. In comparison, the benefit amount per eligible child on the mainland is $120 this summer.

SUN Bucks will provide $2.5 billion in groceries to an estimated 21 million children nationwide.

“Hawaii is participating in it and we anticipate that it could bring somewhere between $12 to $18 million to the state,” Hawai‘i Foodbank President and CEO Amy Miller said.

Miller worries about the younger population facing food insecurity because it can lead to physical, cognitive and developmental impairment, resulting in lower academic achievement.

“In households with food insecurity, 29 percent had children experiencing food insecurity,” Miller said. “Six percent of children didn’t eat for a whole day because there wasn’t enough money for food.”

Furthermore, 38 percent of adults in these households also face food insecurity.

“What’s typically happening here is the adults are going without food to ensure their children have enough to eat,” Miller explained. “This may make sense to most of us as parents, but the result is that almost 40 percent of parents and caregivers in Hawai‘i with kids under 18 are food insecure.”

A statewide survey of 910 Hawai‘i residents revealed that 11 percent of food-insecure households were classified as having low food security, characterized by reductions in dietary quality.

Additionally, 19 percent were classified as having very low food security, marked by disrupted eating patterns due to the inability to afford meals.

“We are living in one of the richest countries in the world and right now, we aren’t talking about there not being enough food here in our community,” Miller said. “In fact, we have a food waste problem. The problem is this efficient, healthy food just isn’t accessible for too many people because they can’t afford to buy it.”

Miller attributed Hawai‘i’s high food insecurity rates to inflation and low wages.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, food prices in Hawai‘i have risen by an average of 25 percent over the past three years.

“We also know that people who are food insecure tend to select cheaper, less healthy food items because that’s what they can afford,” Miller said.

She said that food insecurity has been associated with chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, coronary heart disease and arthritis.

Food insecurity is linked to approximately $1,800 in additional health care costs per person annually.

Hawai‘i — with a food insecurity rate of 30 percent — experiences an extra $800 million per year in health care costs related to food insecurity.

“I’m not a doctor, but I think I can safely say this is a public health crisis,” Miller said. “We’re going to keep paying these costs down the line unless we do something about it today.”

Mayor Rick Blangiardi, who was involved with the food bank for over 15 years while a television executive, told the Honolulu Star-­Advertiser that the numbers projected during the report were “alarming.”

“When you get to that level of self-sacrifice — putting your health at risk for chronic diseases — so that your family, your children, can eat, that’s just as profound and basic as it gets,” Blangiardi said.

He said he wants to examine the issue of food insecurity more closely to determine how Honolulu County can better support the community.

“The county hasn’t contributed much, and I want to find out more about that so we can help,” Blangiardi said. “That’s something I don’t know enough about right now.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program has provided federal grant funding to support SNAP nutrition incentive projects over the past decade. Each GusNIP project is required to secure nonfederal matching funds equal to 100 percent of the federal award.

Between 2018 and 2024, Hawai‘i received $594,000 for these programs.

One of the financial incentives used by SNAP nutrition incentive programs in Hawai‘i is the DA BUX Double Up Food Bucks program.

The statewide initiative — launched by a partnership between the Food Basket and the Hawai‘i Good Food Alliance — partners with grocery stores and food hubs to offer a 50 percent discount on locally grown fruits and vegetables.

The Food Basket reimburses retailers for the discounts, which increases local produce sales to low-income households and increases retailers’ purchases from local farms.

In November 2023, Gov. Josh Green released $500,000 for the DA BUX program.

Miller expressed hope that the program will continue to receive increased state support through additional funding.

She also said that the state has been considering other programs, such as the Farm to Food Bank project, which allows food banks to purchase food directly from local farmers and distribute it to the community.

“It’s a win-win project,” Miller said. “Every dollar does double duty by investing in local agriculture and providing healthy, fresh produce to those we serve.”
Source: The Garden Island

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