The Gift of Food

Food, the source of life, is central to our Hawai‘i mixed plate of cultures. The fine-dining spots of Waikiki and golf and spa resort eateries throughout the islands accommodate the most discerning palates. In plantation days, Western and Eastern cuisines met at potluck tables. “M-m-m! That’s good! How you make that?” Those words began a century of what foodies now call “Fusion Cuisine,” combinations of exotic ingredients and earthy basics, mixed cooking styles that create an endless variety of tastes and textures. This is what we love. Destinations throughout the world have food traditions — but none have as many as Hawai‘i.

Hawaii Foodbankʻs donations to Dynamic Compassions in Action/Ohana Produce Plus and DCIA/OPP Food Distribution Program at Waimanalo District Park

Naturally, the gift of food starts with fishers, farmers and ranchers, whose wisdom and toil produce an abundant harvest from the ʻaīna. We know how food gets distributed at the market to people who can afford to buy it. For those who can’t, every day, a network of Hawai‘i nonprofits work together to collect food donations and deliver them to the hungry. They serve seniors on a fixed income, low-income families, disabled persons and homeless persons who may not be getting enough food to sustain health or the energy to work. They help children who may not be getting the nutrition they need to thrive and do well in school. This story explores some benevolent organizations in Hawai‘i that are working hard to distribute food to persons in need. We encourage our readers to celebrate all the volunteers, food producers, wholesale and retail outlets, food service professionals and administrators fighting food insecurity and hunger in Hawai‘i.

Photo of elderly woman being helped by of Hawaii Meals on Wheels
Photo courtesy of Hawaii Meals on Wheels


The United States produces more food crops and livestock than any other nation, yet one in six persons goes without sustenance at least one day a week. Food insecurity affects American families with low income, fixed-income seniors over 65, disabled persons and the homeless population. In Hawai‘i, the poverty rate dropped from 12.5 percent of the population in 2014 to 9.5 percent in 2017 (the latest published statistics). Poverty and anticipation of falling into it are at the heart of food insecurity.

Food insecurity is a lack of certainty that you can afford enough food to keep you and your family from going without meals. It can be caused by anything that competes for dollars needed for food. It can happen in households where all individuals are employed. In deprived neighborhoods without local food stores, food insecurity is always present. For seniors and disabled persons, mobility problems, cost of medication and availability of assistive care can lead to food insecurity. Resorting to eating less nutritious and smaller portions of food is a common method of making ends meet when bills for housing and prescriptions are due. Add to that the high cost of living in Hawai‘i — the highest in the nation by a good margin — and economic pressures are intense. Experts estimate that 35 percent of all persons over the age of 65 have protein deficiencies and worry about their ability to live independently. It’s easy to see that identifying reliable, free food resources can relieve insecurity, improve health and promote well-being.

Aloha Harvest picking up donations
Aloha Harvest picking up donations

AN INCREASING NUMBER OF SENIORS WILL EXPERIENCE FOOD INSECURITY reported that 10 percent of seniors live in poverty and face increasing levels of food insecurity. Baby boomers are retiring at a rapid rate, so our fixed-income population is growing. The fastest-growing age group in Hawai‘i is seniors over 80 years old. Seniors in Hawai‘i have the most extended longevity in the U.S., so the number of homebound seniors and disabled persons will also continue to rise. Hawai‘i Meals on Wheels (HMoW) reports that the median age of their clients in 2018 was 86 years for females and 83 years for males. The organization served 99,531 meals to 800 homebound clients. HMoW clients, mostly Asian and female, are unable to shop or prepare meals, and receive limited social contact and caregiving services. Overall food assistance to seniors in Hawai‘i amounted to over 700,000 meals for 6,300 persons. Fortunately, Hawai‘i food assistance charities and agencies that were developed decades ago have the systems, reputation and capacity to expand their services. But expanding requires more money and volunteers. These charities can only continue to grow with help from federal, state and local funding, private donations and people with a heart to donate their time.

Hawaii Foodbank preparing donated food to distribute
Hawaii Foodbank preparing donated food to distribute


Food production in our state is not sufficient to meet all our consumption. In 2012, The Office of Business Economic Development and Tourism (OBEDT) and Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture (HDOA) reported that we import 85 percent of our food from outside the state. Our food supply would only last 10 days if a disaster shut down shipping. Therefore, OBEDT and HDOA recommended a plan to increase food security by increasing local production. It may be surprising to find out that we don’t import only frozen foods and spam. Bananas, mangoes, lemons, every kind of vegetable you can name and even taro come from other places. Hawai‘i also relies on “the barge” to bring ingredients for bakeries and restaurants, packaged goods for convenience stores, food for school cafeterias, hotel kitchens, foodservice companies and food processing plants.

A good example of our food supply is Love’s Bakery, which siloes enough flour for two week’s production so that it will be able to make baked goods — even if a disaster delays ships. The Hawai‘i Farm Bureau Federation and Farmers Union United, and the University of Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture extension service encourage farmers in rural areas to increase edible crops. On Maui, Mahi Pono LLC plans to grow food crops on 41,000 acres of former Pu‘unēnē Mill sugar lands. Supermarkets offer Moloka‘i sweet potatoes and locally grown tomatoes and fruits that were once only available at neighborhood farmers’ markets. A new generation of poi eaters demands taro products in local groceries. Now that revised sugar mill water diversions allow more normal streamflow, Maui taro farms that were nearly extinct a generation ago, are revitalizing old patches. A growing source of fresh produce is rural homeowners who have orchards and grow small plots of vegetables. In times of high yield, these “gentleman farmers” donate produce to local charities.

Hawaii Meals on Wheels preparing individual meals.
Hawaii Meals on Wheels preparing individual meals.

Another positive trend is increasing consumer demand for fresh and organically grown fruits and vegetables. Hawai‘i Farm Bureau Federation and Farmers Union United are helping local farmers develop small and boutique farms. Locally grown produce tends to be harvested when ripe, yielding the highest concentration of beneficial nutrients, robust texture and flavor. Hawai‘i farmers can deliver local ingredients that tell a story, showcase the chef’s creativity and add nutrition into their menus,


Throughout our state, many charities receive and deliver donated food to persons who need it — food pantries, soup kitchens, foodbanks of staples and nonperishable food, meal plan cafeterias, delivered hot meals programs and farmer markets. Support comes from public funds and private donations. Thousands of happy volunteers with good hearts collect, sort, package, redistribute, or serve the food to tens of thousands of clients. These agencies and charities manage the logistics of regular food distribution with a remarkably small but highly skilled and dedicated staff. It would be impossible to name every group, but taking a look at the four largest on O‘ahu reveals how food redistribution and food recovery operations work. In addition to HMoW, Lanakila Meals on Wheels, Hawaii Foodbank and Aloha Harvest are meeting much of the need on O‘ahu.

Lanakila Meals on Wheels kitchen crew.
Lanakila Meals on Wheels kitchen crew.


Hawaii Meals on Wheels

The simple image of an elderly lady accepting a tray containing a hot meal from a Hawaii Meals on Wheels’ (HMoW) volunteer is accurate but far from the big picture of all this agency accomplishes. HMoW partners with 10 kitchens in hospitals and nursing homes on O’ahu to distribute hot meals once a day to 800 homebound clients. Over 400 HMoW volunteers deliver about 100,000 hot meals each year on 53 routes. The areas are close to the commercial kitchen partners so that hot foods arrive hot and cold foods, cold. Poor nutrition and isolation are two of the biggest problems facing the homebound. These stressors can lead to heart disease and cognitive decline — even shorten life as much as a smoking habit or alcoholism.

Lanakila Meals on Wheels packing individual meals
Lanakila Meals on Wheels packing individual meals

HMoW meals must be customized to the client’s medical needs and dietary restrictions by certified dietitians, and designed for taste by professional chefs. Some examples are low-salt, high-fat or low-cholesterol meals. Patients with diabetes or kidney disease need special meals. Others need pureed foods or thickened liquids.

HMoW volunteers take to the road every day, delivering the gift of food between 9am and noon. Over time, they develop relationships with their clients and become an extra pair of eyes to observe how clients are doing. Volunteers may be the first people to report a client’s illness, change in behavior or serious injury. Any senior who needs a hot meal each day and is unable to warm a meal on their own may apply to the Hawai‘i Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC) for food assistance by calling its statewide intake number: 808-768-7700. Food-insecure clients qualify if they are homebound and unable to shop and cook their own meals. Because the number of requests continues to rise, HMoW needs cash donations and volunteers to sustain and grow this valuable program.

Hawaii Foodbank: Church of the Crossroads Donor Tour
Hawaii Foodbank: Church of the Crossroads Donor Tour

If you wish to volunteer at Hawai‘i Meals on Wheels, call its main number: 808-988-6747. You may make donations by mail (P.O. Box 61194, Honolulu, HI 96839) or online at

Lanakila Meals on Wheels

Lanakila Pacific has provided meals to homebound seniors and individuals with disabilities through its Lanakila Meals on Wheels program for over 48 years. As the largest and only island-wide provider of home delivered meals, Lanakila Meals on Wheels delivers both hot and frozen meals to individuals, six days a week, Monday through Saturday. Most individuals’ meals are paid for through state and federal funds, or as part of their Medicaid benefits. If able, families can also self pay for their meals or possibly use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to pay for their home-delivered meals (Lanakila Meals on Wheels is an approved SNAP vendor).

Hawaii Foodbank: Dynamic Compassion in Action
Hawaii Foodbank: Dynamic Compassion in Action

In Lanakila Pacific’s Kupuna Wellness Centers, seniors gather Monday to Friday for wellness activities and lunch, focusing on healthy living and enjoying older adulthood. Activities include exercise programs, outings, guest speakers and games. Seniors enjoy visiting with friends, learning new things and having fun. Lanakila Kupuna Wellness Center locations on O‘ahu include Pohulani Elderly Apartments on Coral Street, Wahiawa¯ District Park on Kilani Street, Waianae District Park on Farrington Highway and West Loch Elderly Village on Renton Road. It also partners with four other senior centers to provide meals to all seniors 60 years and older, though each location may have some additional requirements. Partner centers include Mō‘ili‘ili Community Center on South King Street, Lanakila Multipurpose Senior Center on Lanakila Avenue, Unity House on Pauahi Street and Kokua Kalihi Valley on Linapuni Street.

Aloha Harvest receiving donations from various vendors
Aloha Harvest receiving donations from various vendors

Lanakila Pacific runs two commercial kitchens that prepare the meals. Each meal contains one-third of the recommended daily allowances and consists of an entree, starch, vegetable, fruit, margarine and bread, and low-fat milk. Lanakila Meals on Wheels menu items are developed by dietitians and local chefs to ensure that they meet or exceed USDA nutritional guidelines while incorporating the flavors we all love.

Members within a short drive of the kitchen may receive hot meals. Those who are able to warm their meals can opt for frozen meals.

Aloha Harvest receives surplus foods from restaurants
Aloha Harvest receives surplus foods from restaurants

The Lanakila Meals on Wheels program relies on a dedicated team of volunteers to help with packing and delivering meals and supporting the seniors in the Kupuna Wellness Centers. Relationships the volunteers build with the program participants can feel as close as family — and like family, the Lanakila Kupuna Wellness Centers throw holiday parties to celebrate. For many years, Coldwell Banker has supported the Thanksgiving party with volunteers, entertainment, gifts for attendees and a monetary donation. Lanakila Meals on Wheels delivers a traditional Thanksgiving meal and an emergency food care package to participants on Thanksgiving Day; a Hawaiian meal and a Christmas gift on Christmas Day.

“We know that many people on O‘ahu are relying on us for their only or primary source of nutrition. Having reliable access to healthy food doesn’t just fill the tummy and reduce hunger, but it helps improve many chronic illnesses, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and other diet-related illnesses. “We want people to have access to nutritious food to help keep them healthy, as well as provide friendly visits and wellness checks to support their ability to live independently with dignity,” says Lori Lau, director of Lanakila Meals on Wheels.

Give it Fresh Today together with Aloha Harvest
Give it Fresh Today together with Aloha Harvest

To become a Lanakila Pacific volunteer or make a donation, call 808-356-8519 or email To find the location for Kupuna Wellness Centers nearest to you, visit or send an email to

Hawaii Foodbank

The largest foodbank in the state is Hawaii Foodbank, a certified member of Feeding America that screens and stores perishable and nonperishable food, and then distributes through approximately 200 charitable agencies on O‘ahu and Kaua‘i. The amount of food donated and distributed trends with the economy. Currently, Hawai‘i Foodbank serves one in eight people, including kūpuna, keiki and families struggling to make ends meet.

Hawaii Foodbank also partners with The Food Basket to serve Hawai‘i County and Maui Food Bank to serve Maui County. It is a partner agency of Aloha United Way and Kaua‘i United Way.

Small, private and backyard farm donations
Small, private and backyard farm donations

Ron Mizutani, who directs Hawaii Foodbank, says, “We have many senior clients and senior volunteers. Currently, about 1,900 seniors over 60 on O‘ahu qualify for the Senior Food Box Program. Kūpuna who meet income guidelines can be certified to receive one box of dry milk, cheese, cereal, peanut butter, rice, canned meat, fruits and vegetables per month. We also offer kūpuna fresh produce through the senior farmers market nutrition program. Each qualified senior receives $50 worth of vouchers to use in exchange for fruits and vegetables. Six thousand seniors participated last year.”

Shoppers can help people in need of food during the holidays by taking part in the annual Check-Out Hunger program in supermarkets on O‘ahu, Maui and Kaua‘i from now through Jan. 15, 2020, and on Hawai‘i Island from Dec. 1 through Jan. 31, 2020. Participating stores have displays with green tear pads. You may choose to buy breakfast for a child for a week, a month of lunches for a senior or a month of family dinners. Tear off the coupon and give it to the checker to scan with your groceries.

“Our motto is ‘Hawaii Foodbank provides food so that no one in our family goes hungry,’” says Ron. “The easiest way for people to find available services on O‘ahu is to dial 2-1-1, Aloha United Way’s social service hotline.”

Ron says they always need more volunteers; many of their 6,000 volunteers are seniors. To sign up, call 808-954-7866 or email volunteer@ To make a cash donation, visit or mail a check to Hawai‘i Foodbank, 2611 Kilihau St., Honolulu, HI 96819-2021.

Aloha Harvest Food Rescue Program

You may not be as familiar with Aloha Harvest because they rescue and redistribute food products before they outdate or become waste. They pick up excess prepared and perishable food from restaurants and retail stores and deliver them the same day to charities who feed the hungry. For 20 years, Aloha Harvest has been soliciting donations of prepared, perishable and hot foods, and trucking them to soup kitchens, local food pantries and other outlets that distribute them to the hungry.

Phil Acosta, executive director of Aloha Harvest, says, “There is an unhealthy interdependence among basic needs for housing, healthcare and food. All are necessary, but big-ticket needs get more attention; when money is scarce, food is the easiest thing to cut back. Unfortunately, without food, we can’t stay healthy enough to work and pay the rent. The way we look at it is — feeding the hungry helps all three needs.”

Phil, the operations manager of Mele Pepa Latu, and community resource coordinator Leslie Pyo conduct logistics and dispatch for six trucks that last year redistributed over 1.7 million pounds of rescued food on O‘ahu. They warehouse none. Every day starts and ends with empty trucks! Their food donations come from hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores and a few farmers. They deliver packaged sandwiches, baked goods, pans of prepared foods from Waiki ¯ki ¯ hotel kitchens and O‘ahu restaurants to 170 outlets — shelters, soup kitchens with protection from liability under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.

Before starting Aloha Harvest, Phil ran a family nonprofit for homeless persons. He estimates that 475 million pounds of excess perishable and prepared food go to waste every year on O‘ahu. Therefore, Aloha Harvest is just scratching the surface of food rescue in Hawai‘i. Not all the foods they distribute are destined to become waste. Some are very desirable excess products donated to help food-insecure people. But Phil estimates that up to 40 percent of excess perishable food in Hawai‘i can be rescued and distributed.

“Hawai‘i has plenty of food to go around if we just redistribute the excess food that we don’t consume,” he says. His distribution model is efficient and low-cost. His goal in 2020 is to bring on more drivers, trucks and volunteers to expand their impact. Donations from farms, food service professionals, retailers and manufacturers are welcome every day. Charitable cash donations that pay salaries or insure and maintain delivery trucks may be made online at or by mail to Aloha Harvest, 3599 Wai‘alae Ave., Unit 23, Honolulu, HI 968816. Food professionals who wish to donate food may call Mele or Leslie at 808-537-6945.


Waste Not Want Not – Maui

Food distribution and food rescue strategies move abundance to people in need in small communities too. Melanie Kehaunani King runs a nonprofit on Maui called “Waste Not Want Not.” Small farmers and people who grow fruits and  vegetables on their properties call Mel when they have excess yield or if fruits are the wrong size for the market. She harvests and hauls the produce to Hale Makua, a rehabilitation and long-term care facility, where they incorporate fresh produce into their foodservice menu. “We need volunteers and donations of fresh produce,” she says. “Folks on Maui with excess crops can just give me a call at 808-359-9103 to schedule a pickup.”

■ Key Project – Kahalu‘u Key Project is a cultural community organization in Kahalu‘u that is an outlet for both Hawai‘i Foodbank and Aloha Harvest. Key Project distributes bags of food twice a month and farms wetland taro that teen volunteers may harvest and take home for their families. For more information about community activities at Key Project, or to donate or volunteer, visit, email or call Kalai Kukahiko at 808-239-5777. Mail donations to Key Project, 47-200 Waihe‘e Road, Kaneohe, HI 96744.

■ Give it Fresh Today Produce Donation Project – Kaimuki

The Hawai‘i Farm Bureau Federation sponsors a farmers market at Kapiolani Community College, 4303 Diamond Head Road in Honolulu, every Tuesday afternoon from 4 to 7pm and Saturday morning from 7:30 to 11am. At the market, Give it Fresh Today solicits donations of vegetables and fruit for charities that feed the hungry. Stop by their booth to donate produce. For further information, email

The gift of food is a traditional value in Hawaii and community organizations that collect and give out food reduce food insecurity and help feed those in need earn our admiration and respect every day. The ones highlighted here are joined by many small volunteer and nonprofit food distribution efforts in your local community. Celebrate them.

This year, look for ways you can help them deliver the gift of food. Share this article with your family; if you suspect a neighbor of friend is food-insecure but too shy to ask for help, give them a copy. Put a food charity on your list of organizations to consider for donations of food, volunteer time or a cash donation. Together, we can make sure that nobody goes hungry.


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