A lauded summer meal program has restarted, but rural children could miss out due to USDA rules

Changing demographics mean that all of Maui County is locked out of a federal program meant to benefit children in rural communities.

Bernie Patinio and his team at the Kahumana Food Hub will be distributing thousands of boxes of food on Oahu this summer, stacking them with local produce, milk, canned tuna, and bread.

Statewide, approximately 8,000 boxes of food will be distributed each week to children of food-insecure families in Hawaii, as part of the Kaukau 4 Keiki program.

Kahumana is already the distributor of 3,600 cases per week on Oahu, though Patinio and his team anticipate that could soon increase to 5,000.

Each box contains 14 meals for each child, covering their breakfasts and lunches that would normally be covered by school meal programs.

But the new USDA designations requiring children to come from rural areas in Hawaii created challenges for distribution and highlighted rapid changes in the distribution of wealth driven by the coronavirus pandemic.

Dean Hanohano and Bernie Patinio distribute food in Nanakuli as part of the Kaukau 4 Keiki program. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The Kaukau 4 Keiki program launched in 2021 and was hailed as a success, feeding many food-insecure Hawaiian families already facing some of the highest food prices in the country.

It stalled in 2022, but this year the program has been revived, possibly for good, meaning the state could tap into millions of federal dollars to feed locally produced food to children.

But with the restart have come rules that did not exist in 2021.

The program now only applies to families living in designated rural areas recognized by the US Department of Agriculture, which funds the program.

The rural designation rule “fell apart at the last second,” according to Hawaii Food Hub Hui coordinator Saleh Azizi.

“There wasn’t a great feeling about this mapping, with someone sitting in DC telling us what’s rural and what’s not,” Azizi said.

Malama Kauai CEO Megan Fox says the influx of wealthier people during the pandemic pushed some communities out of eligibility as census data has distorted reality on the ground.

“It’s happening in our communities, these huge wealth gaps,” Fox said. “There are people really at the bottom of this.”

For Oahu, Kahumana has been able to come up with a solution, setting up pickup points in designated rural areas.

The pickup locations, given the mapping, are “just inconvenient,” says Azizi.

There is a concerted effort among the administrators of the Kaukau 4 Keiki program to source as much locally grown food as possible for the program, which will run for up to eight weeks. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

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The rule change has essentially ruled out all of Maui County, as the program’s local sponsor felt the program was not viable without key areas like Kahului, Kihei and Makawao that are not considered rural by the USDA.

Maui United Way, which ran the Maui program in 2021 and distributed up to 600 boxes each week, will now not do so due to the new designations.

Maui United Way President Nicholas Winfrey estimates the demand would be only 80 boxes per week, making the entire project unsustainable.

“That’s a big subset of those 500 to 600 boxes,” Winfrey said in an interview.

The nonprofit was able to deliver the program last year with private funding, which Winfrey says she’s not ruling out this year given the need.

“I think there are lots and lots of opportunities for this program, even if the rural designations change,” Winfrey said.

School feeding advocates see the box program as far superior to crowd-fed, where kids can still eat at school during the holidays in a program being offered in 86 Hawaii public schools this year.

Many supporters of the Kaukau 4 Keiki program also view it as superior, because it receives more federal funding.

photo of food box deliveries as part of the Kaukau 4 Keiki program
Maui’s Kaukau 4 Keiki program delivered a week’s worth of groceries to children on three different islands during the pandemic, but the program will not run this year. (Courtesy: Bryan Berkowitz/Maui United Way/2022)

Keep meeting the demand

Food hubs and other organizations involved in Kaukau 4 Keiki also point to the program’s support for local agriculture.

During six weeks of food distribution on Kauai, Big Island and Oahu, nearly $3 million in federal rebates could reach hundreds of local farmers and their workers.

On Kauai, the demand is so high right now that Malama Kauai is finding it hard to keep up before her show launches next week.

Food hubs like the one in Kahumana are driving demand for local produce.
(David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The revival of tourism has drawn supplies of local Kauai products, and labor shortages are impacting the organization’s ability to deliver its program beyond 400 boxes per week.

Fox says that Malama Kauai has decided to make it work this year because it is one of the most effective infant feeding programs in the state.

If it continues, organizations like Malama Kauai could tell farmers what they need well in advance and benefit both children and the food system.

“That’s one of our key markers of how successful we are: how much of our spending is in Hawaii,” Fox said. “That’s very important to us.”

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund in Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.