Feeding families on the Waianae Coast has meant keeping on the move, said Alicia Higa, director of health promotion at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center. With the help of community volunteers, Higa and her staff of six distribute 1,700 breakfast and lunch grab-and-go meals each day, Mondays to Fridays, from four sites along the expansive coast.
When the pandemic closed public schools in March, the state Department of Education distributed meals at five schools. That made access challenging for families who had to travel some distance to pick up the food within a 30-minute window, twice daily, with children in tow. In response, the center began dispersing food at other locations to fill in some of the gaps.
“This let the DOE know there was a need to open more sites,” said Higa. “Now, there are 11 DOE sites.”
The center has continued to move its distribution locations to meet family needs. “We moved our resources up the coast, and the DOE followed our lead,” she said.
The center’s meals are part of its Emergency Keiki Feeding Program that runs weekdays through the end of the month, tied to the public school year, which ends May 28.
But the center isn’t skipping a beat. Starting June 1, it will provide 2,400 meals to children each weekday from four sites: Helelua Street across Puu Heleakala Recreation Center in Nanakuli, Hale Wai Vista and Leihoku Elementary School in Waianae, and Kaupuni Neighborhood Park in Waianae Valley.
Unlike the 65,000 meals the center has provided since the pandemic began, which it funded through donations from various organizations and area businesses, the summer meals will be paid for by the federal Summer Food Service Program.
Meals so far have been prepared at the center and at Kahumana, a nonprofit that includes a farm and cafe. For the summer, cooking will be done solely at the center.
The center’s summer distributions will continue to address populations that have difficulty accessing DOE sites, some of which also will serve food during summer. Kaupuni park, for instance — well into Waianae Valley on Hawaiian homestead land, where pockets of people live — is among areas farthest from DOE sites.
Linda Jury, a resident of Waianae Valley Homestead and mother of five, said the meal program is “a big blessing” in many ways.
“It’s bringing people together, not just to receive meals, but to volunteer to be part of the distribution,” she said. She is among the volunteers at Kaupuni park. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for our homestead.”
Aside from its meals program, Higa’s department assists with other food projects. Twice weekly, staffers help pass out a total of 2,600 pans of food provided by Kamehameha School. They also disperse weekly Hawaii Foodbank pantry bags, each filled with 5 pounds of shelf-stable food. The center adds fresh produce purchased from Waianae farmers displaced after it closed its community farmers markets. (The center hopes to reopen markets in July.) So far, it has purchased more than 20,000 pounds of produce.
On Saturday the center holds its monthly food distribution, with donations from various organizations and businesses providing 60 to 70 pounds of food to each of 1,200 families, from meats, fresh produce, eggs and milk to shelf-stable food.
Higa cites pre-coronavirus data, which found the Waianae Coast to be 40% food insecure, to explain why she and her crew “jumped into action” as soon as schools closed.
“Since the pandemic, that figure has been blown out of the water,” she said, and after two months they’re still going full throttle. “We’ve been working on adrenaline.”
But there are bright spots.
“As exhausting as it is, it’s been amazing to watch,” she said. “It really is taking a village — the nonprofits, volunteers, community members. If there’s a silver lining in all this, it’s that it’s really bringing the community together.”
For more on the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center’s grab-and- go meals, call 697-3709 or go to wcchc.com.