HONOLULU (KHON2) — Food insecurity in Hawaiʻi is a reality that need not exist. Since the COVID pandemic began in 2020, food insecurity on the islands has increased.
Those who are struggling are parents who cannot find work with adequate pay to raise and provide for their family, parents who are out of work for various reasons, single mothers who are being underpaid, kūpuna and, of course, keiki.
Get Hawaii’s latest morning news delivered to your inbox, sign up for News 2 You
According to Feeding America, food insecurity has increased over 50% in Hawaiʻi since the onset of the pandemic, meaning Hawaiʻi has the fourth largest percentage increase in the U.S.
One in six keiki in Hawaiʻi face food shortages and hunger on a daily basis. In total, there are 136,190 people in Hawaiʻi who go hungry each day, of these, over 50,000 are keiki.
Many of these keiki are racking up food debt at school.
“My school is a Title 1 school which means we get extra money from the federal government because many of the families we serve have income at or below the poverty line,” said Sarah “Mili” Milianta-Laffin, STEM & Computer Science teacher at Ilima Intermediate School in Ewa Beach. “Teaching during the pandemic was difficult, but I never had to worry about if my students were hungry because the state was providing free breakfast and lunch for all students.”
However, Milianta-Laffin said that since the program was ended, her students “were devastated” since they had come to rely on a consistent source of food. To compound humiliation onto dire circumstances, Milianta-Laffin said that her students’ parents are now required to fill out forms that identify them as incapable of providing food for their children.
“It upsets me, as a teacher and as a human, that we require parents to admit in writing that they cannot afford to feed their children. There are also harmful community stories that stop families from filling out the free school lunch forms – such as filling out these forms could get you visited by child welfare services or put potential citizenship papers at risk,” explained Milianta-Laffin.
Now, Hawai’i keiki are being forced into food debt. Not being able to afford food has created a situation where keiki are sometimes humiliated for the situation over which they have no control.
“Recently, a student quietly brought their friend to my classroom at lunch, and the student was visibly upset because they had picked up their lunch tray and had it taken away by a cafeteria worker because they didn’t have money in their account to pay. What does it say about us as a society if we’re okay with publicly shaming kids for something they can’t control and then leaving them hungry?” added Milianta-Laffin.
Hawai’i Lawmakers are aware of what is happening to families. This led Hawaiʻi State Rep. Scot Z. Matayoshi to make moves to eradicate keiki food debt in Hawaiʻi.
“During the pandemic, many families with children experienced hardship,” said Rep. Matayoshi. “We are directly supporting these families financially, providing nutritious food to our keiki to ensure they are ready to learn.”
Matayoshi went on to say that “it is my hope that the State can make up the difference to ensure school lunches are free to all public-school students.”
Kūpuna food insecurity is rising as well. According to Hawai’i Health Matters, there are approximately 15.1% of kūpuna who do not have access to adequate food. Maui ranks highest with 16% while Honolulu ranks lowest with 14.3%.
As this food insecurity crisis unfolds, there are many groups and businesses around the islands that are attempting to stand in the gap to provide food for those who need it. One such group is Hawai’i Rotary.
The Hawaiʻi Rotary teamed up with the Hawaiʻi Foodbank to provide some relief to individuals and ‘ohana who are in need of food.
On Saturday, March 18, over 70 volunteers participated with Rotary Club of Hickam Pearl Harbor at the Hawaii Foodbank in Honolulu. They assembled over 2,000 boxes of food for the Foodbank’s kūpuna program known as Commodity Supplemental Food Program.
This program is a monthly service that provides quality USDA food to low-income kūpuna.
Get news on the go with KHON 2GO, KHON’s morning podcast, every morning at 8
Each month, the Foodbank partners with various organizations, agencies, businesses and non-profits to provide food to Hawaiʻi’s communities.