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Little pantry, big heart at Kauai’s Free Food Pantry

  • COURTESY HARNEET BAJWA
                                Emilia Knudsen’s Free Food Pantry, in front of her house in Kapaa, offers food to whoever needs it.

    COURTESY HARNEET BAJWA

    Emilia Knudsen’s Free Food Pantry, in front of her house in Kapaa, offers food to whoever needs it.

While most girls her age are busy with school and hobbies, 11-year-old Emilia Knudsen is raising money as an entrepreneur to feed her neighbors in need.

In April she started her own Free Food Pantry, a small cupboard propped up on a couple of bricks on the side of the road in front of her house in Kapaa on Kauai. The pantry is open 24/7 and a sign on the little pitched roof encourages people to take what they need or donate what they can.

And Emilia’s cupboard is never bare. She restocks throughout the day with cans of Spam and tuna, rice, pasta, flour, sugar, vegetables and fruit; as well as a few personal hygiene items, pet food and other miscellany for about 20 to 30 people who come by regularly.

She said the cupboard originally held a Free Little Library, welcoming people to take a book or leave one. She converted it to a pantry once the small, rural community felt the impact of COVID-19, and operates it in the same vein.

Emilia may be dauntless when it comes to helping others, but she’s shy when it comes to speaking about her accomplishments. So she had her mom convey her answers through email.

“My only goal is that no one on Kauai has to go hungry to bed,” she said.

EMILIA RAISES money to fill her cupboard by making and selling handcrafted items, available through the online craft shop Etsy and at The Kauai Store, which specializes in locally-made gifts and products. She’s partnering with store owner Eric Burton, who has set aside a section of his store as the Kapaa Community Food Pantry.

“Considering that we all agree that everybody deserves to get food, we decided to join forces,” Burton said. “Emilia and her mother have inspired a lot of people to donate food and have also raised over $10,000 to buy food for the pantry. We all strongly feel that if we help each other, then everybody gets to be OK.”

The Kauai Store pantry serves an average 100 people a day, and demand is growing.

Emilia said her efforts were born when she was handed a free bag of food at school. Her family didn’t need the help, which brought on a realization: “We had enough food and should share with those in need.”

Now that she’s started sixth grade at Alaka‘i o Kaua‘i Charter School, Emilia can’t spend as much time stocking shelves or helping customers at the community food pantry, but she still checks in every day, and she works on her craft items to raise funds for both big and little pantries.

SO FAR, she’s raised $15,000 from sales of her Keiki Dough (a non-toxic version of Play-Doh made from flour, salt, oil and food coloring), as well as Trash to Treasure ornaments and jewelry made from beach glass, shells and other objects she’s found in nature.

Emilia was only 8 when she started Keiki Dough as part of a class on entrepreneurship. The kids earned enough money to throw a pizza party for the school, and half the income was given to a charity.

Last year she started selling her nature-inspired art and jewelry to raise funds for a school trip to the Big Island. She’s continued making the craft items, she added, as there’s nothing she enjoys more than hunting for these treasures from the beach and forest with her family on outings.

Emilia’s artistic talents emerged at an even earlier age, when she started fire dancing at age 5 under the tutelage of Pomaikai Jordan Harris, a fire knife dancer on Kauai. “Emilia Ahi Naga” (fire dragon) is her stage name.

Before the pandemic she was performing weekly with other dancers at weddings, birthday parties, fundraisers and other events.

“I love to go to big events and dance with all the adult fire dancers,” she said. “I’m very honored that they will let me perform with them.”

She also performed solo at community art events and set up a table to sell her art, jewelry and Keiki Dough. When the pandemic started, fire dancing was another way to fundraise for the food pantries.

Emilia has raised almost $2,000 so far specifically to buy Christmas presents for the kids whose parents come to the pantries.

“If the parents do not have enough money for food, they probably do not have money for presents,” she said. “The kids are having a hard time and need some support.”

She’s planning an event to feature a Mr. and Mrs. Santa, an elf on stilts, a reindeer, an angel and a professional photographer. “Kids need to be uplifted and brightened up.”

Her father, Dan Knudsen, a self- employed writer, is her biggest inspiration, teaching her about paperwork and how to set up a business; he also does quality control and helps with whatever is needed.

She said she hopes her example prompts people to “help others and do something good, because then we will all be OK.”

Still, while she’s been encouraged by the community’s generosity, after working so hard for seven months and being just 11, she admits she’s tired. “I wish all this was over.”

Her mother, Kamala Knudsen, said Emilia is proud to be part of a “magnificent” community effort to feed people in need.

“She will never forget this year and she has already built a strong resilience and confidence in humanity and in herself,” her mother said. “She has been rewarded with so many blessings by spreading joy and aloha while caring for others.”


Emilia Knudsen’s sea glass jewerly, art and Keiki Dough can be purchased on etsy.com and Facebook under EmiliaKJewelry.


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