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Story Publication logo May 14, 2024

Island Community Organizations Fight Food Insecurity

A little girl stands with an umbrella next to a flooded street

W&M students developed reporting and writing skills with the support of Pulitzer Center staff.

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Overhead shot of The Food Basket in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Image courtesy of Leelen Park, 2021. United States.

Right next to the calm waters of Old Kona Airport Beach, thousands of cars are lining up on Kuakini Highway, gradually driving up to the Makaeo County Pavilion and a large parking lot, where cars are forming two lines. Volunteers wear bright orange vests, colorful masks, and hats to shield them from the harsh sun as they hand out bags of food to approaching cars.

It will take hours for each person to receive food, but for the people in these cars, it will mean making sure they and their children in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, will not go hungry.

Right outside the Pavilion is Leelen Park, a former director of development at The Food Basket, making conversation, sharing a smile, and focusing on making people’s day lighter to breathe.

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“Food is personal for me,” emphasizes Park, one of the growing number of enthusiastic volunteers and community leaders in this ocean state working to combat food insecurity and poor food quality, an increasing problem across the country’s island communities.

Growing up, Park’s parents were teachers. When Park was a sophomore in high school, Hawaii was at the height of the teacher union going on strike. Park’s parents were left out of work and did not receive paychecks, which made it difficult to afford food.

While he was too young to remember if his family ever had to go to the food pantry, the memory of being unable to afford essential items from the grocery store reminds Park to support vulnerable communities in need.

Packaged food prepared for distribution. Image courtesy of Leelen Park, 2021. United States.

Park describes how going hungry felt as a child, opening cabinets and refrigerators to find nothing, and going to bed with an empty stomach. When hungry, children's focus is elsewhere and they find it hard to concentrate. These are the kids that community leaders like Park is hoping to help.

Getting food ready for distribution. Image courtesy of Leelen Park, 2021. United States.

Food insecurity is not a new challenge, but the implications of climate change have led to issues with food insecurity growing worse globally. Scott Ickes, an assistant professor in the kinesiology department at William & Mary, describes the greater vulnerability of island communities as there would be “more community destabilization and economic shock related to any sort of storm surge or housing loss or relocation.”

Across island communities, the influence of climate change has left residents vulnerable. José Frau Canabal, the director of operations at ACOMER Puerto Rico, shares how storms can leave a longstanding consequence. Frau Canabal said Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria, a storm aggravated by climate change that devastated the island in 2017.

With climate change, island communities experience challenges in accessing food, especially nutritious food. These struggles arise because of more frequent and severe climate-induced storms that disrupt imports.

The poor infrastructure of island communities needs to be improved in order to maintain an adequate quality of life. U.S. islands and territories are experiencing the pressure climate change has on food. The World Bank shares that 2023 food insecurity levels are 2.5 times higher than in 2016, with the pandemic exacerbating the challenges of accessing food. In Hawaii, the pandemic increased food insecurity by 50 percent, according to Feeding America, with one in six children going hungry.

While the United States government has addressed food insecurity through mixed methods, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and national school breakfast and lunch programs, food insecurity remains a prevalent challenge at local levels. Community organizations are working diligently to support communities when the support of the federal government is not enough. 

ACOMER discusses food-related issues with community members. Image courtesy of José Frau Canabal. 2022. United States.

In particular, food pantries are undertaking various tasks, from providing food for families to advocating on the steps of Capitol Hill to expand who receives benefits.

Jennine Sullivan, the executive director of The Pantry by Feeding Hawaii Together, shares that the familiar story is one of people losing their jobs, which results in challenges in accessing food. However, this story of food insecurity does not arise solely from occupational hardships but rather the climate-induced hardships and infrastructure issues.

“These are [people that] need help to put food on the table every week, and within the last 11 months, we’ve seen the demand for new clients doubled since the beginning of [2023], but food and monetary donations have fallen by over 60 percent,” Sullivan says.

Park describes how the quality of life in Hawaii has changed as the weather has gotten worse, with the extent of global warming taking a more significant toll.

“It is not the same as it was 10 years ago,” Park shares, “We also had wildfires here on the big island, for our island, usually November is one of the wettest times of the year and you know there are parts of our island still under drought-like conditions. It's getting worse as the years go by.”

Despite living on two different islands, Park’s and Frau Canabal’s experiences with food insecurity overlap with a larger story of a shared mission to support individuals experiencing the aftermath of climate-induced disasters.

Volunteers help with The Food Basket’s drive-through distribution. Image courtesy of Leelen Park, 2021. United States.

Getting ready to distribute food boxes. Image courtesy of Leelen Park, 2021. United States.

“You have two options: Either you continue your day-by-day, or you decide to do something,” says Frau Canabal. “It was inevitable to see the necessity and the reality that many communities face on the island when it comes to food insecurity.”

To support the people who have undergone similar struggles with accessing food, Park works intensely to coordinate over 170 community distributions across Hawaii, utilizing personal approaches and a drive-through method that helps clients pick up their food.

In addition, volunteers work to ensure that the food provided to vulnerable communities is nutritious. However, a struggle faced by island communities involves the importation of food to meet local demands. Islands and pantries are paying more for less. Hawaii imports 85 to 90 percent of food, and Puerto Rico imports 85 percent.

The overreliance on and lack of reliability of imports, questions have been raised about a shift to agricultural practices.

The Basket spearheads a Kōkua Harvest program, which harvests fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income communities throughout Hawaii Island. This statewide program ensures that clients receive locally grown fruits and vegetables, improving access to high-quality food.

Luis Alexis-Rodríguez Cruz is an independent scientist and consultant studying agri-food systems and socio-ecological interactions, based in Puerto Rico. He emphasizes the significance of high-quality food access.

“You might be eating foods that are highly processed, or nonrestricted, or not nutritious foods,” Cruz said, and it's necessary to consider the type of food supplied and define food access for policymakers, researchers, and advocates. As Cruz underscores, a person may be food secure, but the food that person is accessing may be unhealthy.

Distributing food. Image courtesy of José Frau Canabal. 2021. United States.

Volunteers at ACOMER hands out food through a drive-through method. Image courtesy of José Frau Canabal, 2021. United States.

Despite the work of food pantries on islands to support vulnerable communities, the unique challenges of significant reliance on imports create issues in providing adequate support.

“The food that’s coming in takes longer, and the shelf life is way lower, so when we’re buying fruits and vegetables from other countries, [it] comes at a higher price and rots and gets thrown away faster because it just doesn’t last,” Frau Canabal said of imported food.

Even looking beyond Puerto Rico and Hawaii, the challenges arising from island infrastructure is present elsewhere. Kim Waddell, director of the Virgin Islands Established Program for Stimulating Competitive Research, shared that “local farmers [in the U.S. Virgin Islands] are struggling with water availability due to erratic and persistent droughts, so local food production is unreliable and not typically affordable.”

The vulnerability of islands to climate-related catastrophes has led experts to recommend building climate infrastructure and supporting local organizations that can support efforts addressing food insecurity.

ACOMER and AARP Puerto Rico. Image courtesy of José Frau Canabal. 2021. United States.

As environmental public health experts, Alexis and Ickes agree that collaborative efforts are necessary to address vulnerabilities associated with island communities, including methods of identifying organizations that can amplify services and resources to vulnerable localities. In particular, it is essential to incentivize investment in local businesses to strengthen the local economy so these island communities are economically resilient against the implications of climate change.

Additionally, the reliance on imported food creates challenges when climate-induced weather interrupts the shipping infrastructure of island communities. For instance, Melissa Finucane, an environmental health risk and policy researcher with the Union of Concerned Scientists and East-West Center, shares that building foundational infrastructure allows for more agricultural production of fresh fruits and vegetables. She says it also utilizes economic incentives to more efficiently collaborate with organizations that can enhance food security and quality of food access in vulnerable regions.

“When we talk about food security, we need to go beyond that individual economic component, which is important, [but] we need to incorporate these other social, political, and cultural elements when we talk and think about food security,” Alexis highlights.

Tending to a community garden. Image courtesy of José Frau Canabal, 2023. United States.


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