‘Historic low’: The Food Basket left with dire shortage of supplies

  • From left, Warehouse Manager Sara Kritikos, Operations Manager Sarah Hamakawa, Deputy Director of Healthy Food Access Initiatives Leelen Park and Executive Director Kristin Frost Albrecht talk about the lack of food coming into The Food Basket in Hilo on Tuesday. Most of the warehouse is empty with food coming in and out quickly. (Kelsey Walling/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

The Food Basket, Hawaii Island’s lone food bank, is urgently requesting donations after a “perfect storm” of circumstances has left the food bank with an unprecedented shortage of food supplies.

Kristin Frost Albrecht, executive director of The Food Basket, said federal food shipments to the food bank have dwindled over the past several months, as have donations by grocery stores. At the same time, however, the Food Basket has seen an uptick in people in need.

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“This is the most challenging time we’ve had as long as I’ve been here,” Albrecht said. “This is a historic low after the wonderful excess during COVID.”

Albrecht said that, during the height of the COVID pandemic, The Emergency Food Assistance Program — a program by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — was sending The Food Basket close to 100,000 pounds of food a month.

But Food Basket Operations Manager Sarah Hamakawa said the program only sent 14,000 pounds in July, “and that was all just dried milk.”

In August, the program shipped no food at all, while this month, TEFAP sent four pallets of rice.

Warehouse manager Sara Kritikos said most of that rice is already gone — even a full warehouse shelf lasts less than a full month.

At the same time, Hamakawa said donations from stores have dwindled, speculating that, as food costs go up, grocery stores are purchasing less and selling a greater percentage of their stock. What donations The Food Basket does receive often don’t include staples like fruit and vegetables or proteins.

Compounding the problem still further is an uptick in people who need the food bank’s services during a period of rapid inflation. Albrecht said The Food Basket served about 40,000 to 50,000 people per month around the beginning of summer, but rising prices and families’ need to provide more meals while school is out has caused those numbers to rise.

Kritikos said The Food Basket has been forced to reduce the amount of food given out.

“Normally we could give out multiples of an item,” Kritikos said. “Like if we had canned tomatoes, you’d get a couple of cans, but now we have to limit it to one per person.”

Albrecht said The Food Basket is now having to purchase the bulk of its food itself, which costs around $300,000 a month, something she said is not sustainable in the long term.

“We’re talking with our board about how long we can do this,” Albrecht said. “Do we use everything we have now or stretch this out?”

Albrecht said the situation highlights the need for one of the Food Basket’s projects: the Agricultural Innovation Park and Food Systems Campus, a planned facility on 24.5 acres in Hilo to develop a sustainable food production system on the island. She said the shortage of food exemplifies why the county needs to invest in food security in the long-term, but added that, in the short-term, The Food Basket can only ask for donations and hope that the situation improves at the federal level soon.

“We’re all looking for manna from heaven right now,” Albrecht said.

Donations can be made via hawaiifoodbasket.org. Albrecht said either monetary or food donations are acceptable.

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

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