Food for hungry goes to waste


By NANCY COOK LAUER

Stephens Media Hawaii

The Hawaii Island Food Basket had to throw out more than 19,000 pounds of food — almost 10 tons — because it couldn’t distribute it fast enough after the County Council declared a food emergency and gave it $275,000 last year.

That’s according to a report the Food Basket sent Monday to Council Chairman J Yoshimoto after a Stephens Media investigation revealed the nonprofit had not met the reporting requirements in the May 3, 2012, contract where the council took the unprecedented step of dipping into the county disaster fund for the money.

The report said the Food Basket has so far distributed only 62.1 percent of the 182,700 pounds of food it purchased with the money, serving 20,546 people. The food had to be purchased prior to the June 30, 2012, end of the fiscal year.

En Young, who took over as executive director of the Food Basket in February, said some waste is to be expected, but the sudden influx of so much food, coupled with such strict reporting requirements that only 17 of the 80 eligible agencies agreed to take the food, made it hard for the nonprofit to keep up.

The problem was compounded by a lack of communication between the county and the Food Basket, he said.

“It’s like the county wanted to get something done and dumped it on our laps to do,” Young said Friday.

Still, Young told the county in his report, “your emergency appropriation is truly serving the most needy in the community.”

The issue became somewhat of a political football after the council in late 2011 passed a nonbinding resolution asking Mayor Billy Kenoi to give the Food Basket $500,000 because 26.6 percent of Big Island children — a full 10,770 — are “food insecure,” not knowing where their next meal is coming from. The state average is 20 percent.

When the administration didn’t act on the resolution, then Kohala Councilman Pete Hoffmann drafted a bill using the council’s emergency powers. In addition to the $200,000 from the county disaster and emergency fund, the County Council pledged another $75,000 from the legislative auditor’s account.

The council passed the election-year measures after a round of emotional speeches from councilors and testimony from supporters declaring island families were starving and children were going to bed hungry.

Hoffmann did not return a telephone call Friday. He and former Council Chairman Dominic Yagong had reiterated their support for the measure in an interview with the newspaper earlier this year, when they were unable to provide copies of the reports that the contract required.

“It was already established that the money would be used for purchasing food,” Yagong said then, “because that’s what their request was for. They had a serious shortage of food.”

Extra reporting requirements were put into place because of the unusual source of the funding. It was a way to make the process more transparent, but it ultimately contributed to the shortage of places to distribute the food.

“We appreciate the Food Basket and have always supported the Food Basket because of the important work they do in our community,” Kenoi said Friday. “Our question was the process used to provide this funding. That’s why the stringent reporting requirements.”

Young was also unable to find copies of the required monthly reports, but he did locate a June 28, 2012, report his predecessor had sent Yagong.

The bill was unanimously passed by the council and reluctantly signed by the mayor. He said in his March 20, 2012, bill-signing message that the disaster fund is meant “to restore and revitalize our island in the wake of a catastrophic disaster, such as a hurricane, earthquake or tsunami.”

Young, a former procurement agent for the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said the industry standard is about 10 percent spoilage, known as “salvage.” The Food Basket spoilage was 19,387 pounds, about 10.6 percent. He said most of the spoiled food was rice, which developed beetle infestations after being kept in a hot warehouse. There were also cans of fruit that got dented and exploded, he said.

“Had (the Food Basket) been able to purchase the rice and other dry, perishable product over a period of time rather than all at once, less salvage would have occurred,” Young said in the report.

The nonprofit had to rent a warehouse at $2,000 a month to hold all the food it purchased, as it didn’t have enough space at the building it was using at the time, he said. The Food Basket earlier this year moved into a new $420,000 building it had purchased in Hilo, twice the size of its previous building.

“It was the (previous) council’s decision to use this method to grant the funds,” Kenoi said. “We just said, ‘Document it and be sure that these funds were used to address that particular emergency.’”

Young said the remainder of the inventory is canned food and he anticipates getting it distributed well in advance of expiration dates. A 2012 statement showed the Food Basket had purchased $268,869 worth of Spam, rice, canned beans, canned fruits and vegetables and other food from Hilo-based T.Hara & Co. LLC in May and June.

In the latest report, Young made four recommendations for future collaborations between nonprofits and the county: Establish a process to provide clarity and set expectations, include county personnel in the purchase process, release funds in measured allotments and research current regulations.

“It was an experiment for the county and I think for any nonprofit to get that kind of money at one time,” Young said. “Now we’ve got a better understanding of how to progress, moving forward.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

 

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