Scramble to make ends meet begins at local food pantries


POSTED: Friday, December 12, 2008


Henry Ramones never imagined he would need help putting food on his family's dinner table. But at 37, the father of a teenage son and 9-year-old daughter found himself at the food pantry line in May after he realized his income barely covered the $1,300 Ewa apartment rent and costs to raise his children.

As the job market tightens and the state's unemployment rate rises, his wife has struggled for months to find a job.

“;The drop in gas prices makes a difference, but it's still not enough,”; said Ramones, a warehouse worker who picked up a part-time job. “;Asking for food wasn't something I wanted to do. I hope the economy gets better, that way my wife can find a job.”;

As far as Hawaii is from Wall Street, the nation's economic crisis has hit the Ramoneses - and the state - hard.

Nonprofits are barely keeping up with an influx of residents, particularly families, asking for help while donations dwindle. Some residents have taken a second job to pay the bills. Others have dipped into depleting retirement accounts or turned to pawnshops to get by.

The sudden closure of Aloha Airlines, which displaced about 2,000 workers last spring, seems to have marked the first sign an economic downturn had reached the islands.

Nonprofits and churches have been swamped since then with people showing up at their doors.

The Hawaii Foodbank has experienced a significant plunge in donations compared with last year. From July 2007 to November 2008, the nonprofit collected 3.9 million pounds of food - enough to prepare meals for 40,000 families but a drop of 200,000 pounds from the same time period the year before.

“;Demand is up and supply is down,”; said Dick Grimm, the organization's president. “;It's extremely difficult to get the food in. We've been appealing to the public for help, and they have responded but it still isn't enough. We're behind our power curve, and we can't seem to catch up.”;

The group has not turned away families, but it has allocated $200,000 within its budget and gotten additional funding from the state to offer more food.

“;We have reached a point where families are getting less food,”; Grimm said. “;Somehow, somewhere, we will find food for families. There may not be as much or the quality may not be as high, but we'll find a way.”;

Carolyn Won, who distributes food twice a week at St. Jude Catholic Church in Makakilo, says demand has doubled in the past six months. The number of families collecting food from the church's pantry has grown to 135 from the usual 60, Won said.

“;The number of families increases every year, but not like it has within the last six months,”; said Won, who now makes up to three weekly trips to the food bank as opposed to one. “;No other year did we have as many food requests to fill.”;

The same is true at the Giving Tree, a food pantry in Kakaako that also provides clothing and furniture.

“;We are seeing more and more nice vehicles and nicely dressed people,”; said Charlie Lorenz, the organization's executive director. “;But just because they are driving a fancy car, it doesn't mean they have a lot of money. I mean, our biggest problem with this financial crisis is people are in debt. They have overspent in buying homes ... in buying cars.”;

Earlier this year, when the organization was offered 1,500 hotel beds, it reluctantly accepted 20 because it was not sure people would need them.

“;They went in one day. Then we took 100 and they went in two days,”; said Lorenz, noting the group eventually moved almost 800 beds in a few weeks.

The Giving Tree usually distributes between 60,000 to 100,000 pounds of food a month. But Lorenz said much more is required to allow people, especially seniors, to stock fridges so they will not have to visit the pantry as often.

“;Right now, if I had 250,000 pounds of food a month to give away and I did not increase one shopper, I'd be able to move it,”; Lorenz said. “;No problem.”;

And as businesses struggle, their employees suffer.

Linden Titcomb is a mortgage loan officer for Aloha Mortgage Solutions. But as someone whose income is based purely on commission from sales in a slowing real estate industry, Titcomb had to get a second job as a flight attendant to pay her mortgage.

“;In the past six months I felt the crunch,”; said Titcomb, 32, who shares her Waialae home - and its monthly costs - with her boyfriend. “;I really enjoy my job. I want this to be my career. I just have to make ends meet.”;

Within the past two months, Titcomb lost three clients as they watched their stocks - investments for their home - disappear. Titcomb earned about $50,000 as a loan officer in 2007, but so far this year she has only made about $30,000 - not enough to cover her monthly $1,900 mortgage and car payments.

Titcomb left just before Thanksgiving for flight-attendant training for the new interisland carrier, Mokulele Airlines, where starting pay will be $18 an hour.

“;At least that will bring some stability and allow me to pay for my half of the mortgage and bills,”; she said. “;It will be enough to get by.”;

Tobi Caballero, a warehouse worker for Triple F Distributing Inc., was told by his bosses to cut down on his hours. His wife, Cori, a stay-at-home mother caring for their 11-month-old daughter, Zhayla, started tending bar once a week so the couple could afford rent at their Makiki apartment.

“;We had to cut back on our shopping. We can't spend lavishly anymore,”; Tobi Caballero said. “;We used to eat out almost every night, but now we don't. Our landlord dropped the rent $50 a month because he didn't want to lose any tenants.”;

Other residents have resorted to more desperate measures.

Tita Ricafort worked for Countrywide Bank, a once-booming mortgage loan company that tanked this year along with other industry businesses. In August, Ricafort - a 41-year-old wife and mother of four children - was among Countrywide employees laid off when nine branches across the nation restructured or closed.

“;We knew that something would happen. We just didn't know when,”; Ricafort, of Hauula, said. “;The not-knowing part frustrated us the most.”;

A month later, Ricafort filed for unemployment. She pulled out her entire 401(k) after watching the stock market tumble. She has turned down other job offers because the pay would not be enough to support her four children.

“;Job hunting was hard,”; said Ricafort, who began her new job at Territorial Savings Bank a week before Thanksgiving. “;Most of us working in the same industry were all vying for the same jobs, or at least close to what we were doing. A lot of our competitors were downsizing or didn't have business at all.”;

For pawnshop clerk Andy Andresen, meanwhile, business has not necessarily slowed. It has simply changed faces.

The Deal Pawn shop near the low-income housing area Mayor Wright Homes in Liliha is used to seeing drug users trying to raise money to feed their habits. But the trend lately has been more working people looking for money to feed their families and pay bills.

Within the past month, Andresen said a middle-age couple pawned about $5,000 worth of jewelry to pay their mortgage because the husband was out of work.

“;It's mostly families,”; Andresen said. “;They need to buy diapers or pay for gas even though they can barely put enough in to just get to work. We see a lot of business owners that pawn their goods just to keep their business running. The economy is hurting everyone.”;


Star-Bulletin reporter Alexandre Da Silva contributed to this report.