Food bank demands remain high

  • Punehana Hoke moves a tub of meals to make room for more at the Boys & Girls Club in Hilo on Friday, May 29, 2020. (Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald)

  • Keiko Mills packs meals into a tub to deliver to a community at the Boys & Girls Club in Hilo on Friday. (Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald)

  • From right, Jay Baptista, Jacob Anderson and Lisa Keanini form an assembly line to put together meals to donate to communities across the island at the Boys & Girls Club in Hilo on Friday, May 29, 2020. (Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald)

With statewide unemployment skyrocketing during the COVID-19 pandemic, food distribution programs are struggling to keep up with demand.

“We’ve done more in one month than we’d do in a typical six months,” Kristin Albrecht, executive director of The Food Basket, said Thursday.

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In order to support thousands of Big Island residents who abruptly found themselves without income when nonessential businesses shut down in March, The Food Basket has conducted more than 30 “Ohana Drops” — drive-through food distribution events — with the assistance of the Hawaii police and fire departments and the Hawaii National Guard since the COVID-19 lockdown began, Albrecht said.

The Ohana Drops have been extremely successful: Albrecht said each one attracts anywhere from 800 to 2,500 individuals. An April Ohana Drop in Kona served more than 50,000 pounds of food.

However, Albrecht said the current pace of food distribution is probably not sustainable in the long term. Because any individual is able to procure food through Ohana Drops — “All we ask is that people self-declare that they’re in need,” Albrecht said — and because The Food Basket cannot accept food donations for hygiene reasons — the coronavirus can linger on surfaces — continuing the Ohana Drops is expensive, she said.

“We’re really fortunate right now with our local philanthropic community,” Albrecht said. “I don’t see this being sustainable long term, but hopefully in a few months we’ll be able to accept regular donations again.”

Another food distribution program has similar concerns for the future.

The Boys and Girls Club of the Big Island has distributed free meals to families about five days a week since mid-March.

Using kitchens in both Hilo and Kona, the club delivers more than 800 meals a day, and surpassed the 30,000-deliveries mark on Thursday. However, Boys and Girls Club CEO Chad Cabral said the program comes at significant expense.

“We’ve estimated that every meal costs about $5.50 to make,” Cabral said. “So, with more than 30,000 meals, that’s an enormous loss for us, financially.”

Based on Cabral’s estimate, the program has cost at least $165,000 since it began.

Thanks to partnerships and grants, Cabral said the Boys and Girls Club can afford to continue meal-delivery programs until the end of July.

“Hopefully by August, the schools might be able to reopen so kids will be able to get school lunches again,” Cabral said.

However, Cabral said the program will continue as long as possible, and appears to have no plans to scale it down anytime soon. The Boys and Girls Club has even hired additional staff for the program, employing former hotel restaurant workers to prepare and deliver food.

Cabral said maintaining the program is hard work, but also “heart work.”

“I’m fortunate we have so many dedicated employees, who have the heart for helping kids,” Cabral said. “They see the struggle they’re going through, and they work tirelessly because of it. They’re the only reason why we’re able to produce this many meals.”

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The club also will host its usual summer programs through June and July — albeit in a heavily modified state to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 — for free. Cabral said the 50 availability slots for the two-month program, each of which would typically cost about $600, were filled almost immediately after the program was announced.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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