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Council grills Food Basket director over donations

The next time there is a food shortage emergency, the county will handle it better, several County Council members vowed Tuesday after hearing how a council action last year overwhelmed the Hawaii Island Food Basket with too much food to distribute in too short a time.

The council on May 3, 2012, had given the Food Basket $275,000 to spend by the June 30, 2012, end of the fiscal year. The resulting rush to distribute the food, which had extra reporting requirements attached, resulted in the Food Basket having to “salvage,” or write off its books, more than 19,000 pounds of food — almost 10 tons.

“That was $46,916 in public funds that was wasted,” said Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan, who calculated the cost of the lost food. “(The former council) thought it was a crisis. I just wish we’d done it better, and in a future crisis, we will.”

Not all that food was thrown away, said Food Basket Executive Director En Young. Some was given to agencies that would accept the risk of lower quality food, and some was given to area piggeries.

“There were a couple of hiccups along the way,” Young acknowledged.

Young, who started the job long after the food had been ordered, created the report and submitted it to the council after a West Hawaii Today investigation revealed the $275,000 had never been accounted for.

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.

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.”

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.

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

Most of the council members, especially those taking office after the vote to give the Food Basket so much money, said they were disappointed with the results of the council spending.

“It was a time of need,” said Puna Councilman Zendo Kern. “When it comes to taxpayer money, we need to be so critical. … It was disappointing, but we have to learn from that.”

Two of the three council members who are still on the council, Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford and Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi, questioned Young on how he let food go bad and get infested with beetles.

Did the Food Basket not use a “first in, first out” system, asked Ford. Did it consider freezing the rice to kill the beetles?

Why did the Food Basket have to clear floor space for the food and rent an extra warehouse, asked Onishi.

“At the time … it was depleted. Your warehouse was empty,” Onishi said. “What reality was and what was told us was not totally how it was supposed to have been.”

Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter said the most important lesson learned is that council shouldn’t give a large lump sum but should spread it out over a period of time so the Food Basket can process it. The public should also be educated, Poindexter said, to help spread food drives throughout the year.

“You cannot give a lump sum,” Poindexter said. “We need to spread it out so we can reduce the salvage.”

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.