Since The Food Basket’s first Ohana Food Drop in March, the demand for food on the Big Island has only increased. At the Old Kona Airport Pavilion on Thursday, the need was plain to see as the Food Basket held their eighth Ohana Food Drop in Kona – and 91st on the Orchid Isle overall – since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of cars lined up to fill the former airstrip, waiting for their turn to receive food.
“Today, I think we’ll see over 4,000 individuals that will need food; that will be a record for us,” said The Food Basket’s executive director Fristin Frost Albrecht. “This is a crowd.”
For many waiting in their vehicles, visiting the Food Drops has become a monthly habit to stay afloat.
“We’ve come from the first time they started,” Stella Racay said as she neared the front of the line. “It’s a big benefit; it helps us out a lot. My family, my kids, everything.”
Frost Albrecht noted that most in line were repeat recipients: a trend that has grown as the pandemic stretches on. Though the majority of recipients in April, May and June were first-timers, a large portion of the population has come to depend on The Food Basket.
“Steadily, throughout this whole thing, 85% [of recipients] are either furloughed or unemployed,” said Frost Albrecht. “People are really counting on this as part of their food for the month. Everyone’s exhausted their savings; in many cases, there’s just no end in sight.”
The need in Kona has grown accordingly. In the Food Basket’s initial Kona Drop on April 17, they served more than 50,000 pounds of food to a combined total of 2,314 individuals. Thursday’s total saw an increase of more than 70% from April’s total, serving a total of 3,951 individuals and 895 families. According to Frost Albrecht, The Food Basket has given out more than six million pounds of food to around 85,000 individuals as of the end of September.
Despite the increase in demand, The Food Basket has managed to keep everything local, with the entirety of their donations being spent on Hawaii Island.
“If there’s one thing I’m super proud of, not only just that we can do this, it’s the fact that everything that we have purchased with our donors’ money has been purchased right here on this island,” said Frost Albrecht.
Though the return of trans-Pacific travelers has re-stimulated parts of the economy, many recipients have yet to see the impact.
“For me, no; I haven’t had any effect yet,” said Annie, a driver who chose not to give her last name.
“A couple communities, we’ve noticed where people have gone back to work, so we saw our count go slightly down,” added Frost Albrecht of the change since the pre-travel testing program has been in place. “But we haven’t seen a demonstrable change yet, unfortunately.”
The increased volume was evident as cars were backed up along Kuakini Highway nearly to Loloku Street just to enter the queue at the Old Kona Airport Pavilion. Once in, vehicles snaked around the runway by the hundreds as they waited their turn.
“The biggest challenge is the vehicles, just getting everybody situated,” said Leelen Park, COVID-19 emergency response project manager at the Food Basket. “It becomes a challenge for us to organize them… Once we get the flow going with the traffic, it just goes.”
A small army of volunteers was on site to help manage the traffic, including members of the Hawaii National Guard, Hawaii Police Department, Hawaiian Airlines and Lions clubs, as well as The Food Basket’s staff on hand. November’s Food Drop was the first at the Old Airport Pavilion; past drops in Kona were held in the smaller parking lot of the Kekuaokalani Gymnasium.
“These reliable, trusted volunteers and agencies have made all the difference for us to be able to pull something like this off,” said Frost Albrecht.
Those who need assistance meeting their food needs are welcome to visit www.hawaiifoodbasket.org to see food pantry schedules; Ohana Food Drop schedules across the Big Island are also on the website.