Senior Produce Program to cease operations after 10 years

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The Food Basket, Hawaii Island’s food bank, announced its decade-old Senior Produce Program has ended.

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The Food Basket, Hawaii Island’s food bank, announced its decade-old Senior Produce Program has ended.

The program for low-income elderly residents served 1,515 people from June to October 2016, with 22,725 bags of locally grown, fresh produce.

Fruits and vegetables were treasured by recipients and became a stable source of income for area farmers. The Food Basket bought produce, such as grade-A mushrooms, tomatoes and bananas.

“For the seniors, their health depends on fresh fruits and vegetables — because that’s where their nutrition comes from,” said Tamara Watson of Hawaiian Paradise Park, who stopped Tuesday to get food at the Pahoa Senior Center, where volunteers filled bags with staples such as bread, noodles and soup.

Fruit juice cans and canned fruit were included. But no fresh produce.

Senior produce coordinator Claudia Wilcox-Boucher said the decision was difficult for The Food Basket, but financially necessary.

Executive Director En Young said federal funds offered to service groups through the state are competitively sought, and organizations must bid to access the funds. Officials intended to offer produce to more senior citizens throughout the state by opening up the federal funds to all four of the state’s counties instead of only Hawaii and Honolulu, as in past years, Young said, but with no increase in appropriations. That would mean the same amount as in previous years would be available, but being offered to a wider population.

The dollar amount available in Hawaii County this year is $50 per senior citizen for the 15-week summer period instead of $150. Administrative funds also decreased by $10,000 for the program, Young said.

The Food Basket already operated the program at a loss because administrative funds didn’t cover delivery costs. The decision was made to discontinue the program because it no longer was financially feasible.

“We’re working frantically to bring in other programs and funds that can provide comparable benefit to make sure we can continue to provide coverage for struggling seniors islandwide,” Young said in The Food Basket’s announcement.

Lisa and Scott Newcomb of Kurtistown were disappointed.

“It means we won’t get to eat fresh fruit,” said Lisa Newcomb, a vegetarian. Scott Newcomb said he eats a little chicken but also relies on fruits and vegetables. They’ll stick more to canned food than they would prefer.

Scott Newcomb said his income comes from Social Security disability benefits.

“I paid for that. I worked 27 years,” he said. But it’s not enough to cover all of the couple’s basic needs.

Another program will offer supplemental food this summer with USDA funding The Food Basket was able to access. But its focus is nonperishable foods.

Watson said the Senior Produce Program “means a lot to me because, with limited income, the vegetables and fruits are the most expensive foods. So I kind of rely on the healthy part of my diet coming from the produce program.”

“It’s sad … ,” said Devon Leonard of Pahoa. “I’ll really miss it. I looked forward to it for the last three years.”

The produce supplemented her diet well, she said. She’ll miss the tomatoes (her favorite), mushrooms, peppers and onions.

“For a lot of seniors, it will mean eating less good, healthy food,” Leonard said.

“Summer’s coming,” said Leonard’s daughter-in-law, Emefa Dokonor. “Something so special can mean so much.”

“There’s going to be a lot of sad seniors and a lot of disappointed seniors and a lot of disappointed farmers,” Wilcox-Boucher said.

Young said The Food Basket is working with current donors to shift some dollars from other programs and figured out how to continue offering produce to about 1,000 to 1,200 of the affected senior citizens. But 300 to 500 seniors will be without produce, and it would take a donation of about $185,000 to $195,000 to continue offering the full program to all 1,515 served last year.

For those who qualify for SNAP/EBT, The Food Basket’s Ho‘olaha Ka Hua community-supported agriculture program will continue. A box of produce is $12 a week. Those who don’t qualify for SNAP/EBT can buy the boxes for $16 a week.

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To sign up or ask questions, call 933-6030.

Email Jeff Hansel at jhansel@hawaiitribune-herald.com.