East Hawaii News

Tons of Food, Tons of Aloha: Honoka‘a Meal Program Marks 3rd Anniversary

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Each week, a small battalion of volunteers not only battles food insecurity in the Honoka‘a area, more importantly, it’s building community.

“When people are breaking bread together, they can take on bigger problems,” said Ravi Singh, an organizer for the Feeding Our Keiki and Kupuna program, in a press release. “When we get together and leverage resources, it’s not about economic need, it’s about building community. Community can solve any problem.”

Friday, Feb. 18, marks the three-year anniversary of Feeding Our Keiki and Kupuna, the only continuous hot meal service of its kind in the Hāmākua area. The program is an initiative of the Peace Committee of the Honoka‘a Hongwanji Buddhist Temple.

The all-volunteer effort will celebrate the program’s third birthday with an anniversary dinner featuring fresh-made organic Indian food, including lentils cooked in ghee, cauliflower cooked in avocado oil and more, all prepared by Singh.

It won’t be too spicy, but it will be packed with fragrant flavor and aloha, the press release said.
And the program has an abundance of aloha to share.

Feeding Our Keiki and Kupuna traces its roots back to 2017 and a cultural education cooking class for keiki that was put on as part of a partnership with the Hāmākua Youth Center. It expanded in 2019 into what it is now — a weekly hot meal and grocery bag service for the community.

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From 4-5:30 p.m. every Friday, 250-300 free meals and grocery bags are distributed as folks drive by, and some 3,500 pounds of groceries and produce are distributed or delivered to 140 families, kupuna and shut-ins throughout the community. The program also provides children’s book for keiki and special groceries for those without access to kitchens.

Feeding Our Keiki and Kupuna has served some 35,000 meals and, literally, tons of food in the past three years. The program has also provided meals on the Fridays after Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Each week, 45-50 volunteers work on seven different crews to receive and load groceries, carve meat, prep and cook, plate the meals, distribute meals and groceries, home deliveries and then clean up.

After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the program had to scramble when the need for meals increased from about 70 to more than 400 per week, according to the press release. Organizers and volunteers quickly converted the buffet dinner into a drive-through and walk-up operation, implemented masking and other safety measures and have carried on every week since.

The program is based on the ancient concept of the “Langar,” a free community meal in the Sikh tradition of India.

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“The king would stand in line with the pauper, the poorest with the richest, whole families. It makes no difference,” Singh said in the release. “In this way everyone prospers.”

“Langar means ‘anchor,’ and the shared meal, open to all, helps anchor and build community,” the release said.

“This is not about a meal for poor people, or having someone qualify in some way to get an extra meal,” Singh added. “It is about sharing and leveraging resources, building community. Community can solve any problem.”

Miles Okumura, another organizer for the program, strongly agreed.

“Our team has built a depth of leadership,” said Okumura in the release. “Thanks to them, Ravi and I can actually step back and let them operate — which they did for five weeks last year. This is a group effort, a sustainable labor of love. I am particularly proud of the high school students who show up week after week, roll up their sleeves, and get to work.”

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Food industry professionals working with the program include chef Sandy Barr-Rivera, former executive chef at Merriman’s Waimea and culinary school instructor; chef Jim Mackenzie, who was formerly at the Waikoloa Hilton; and restaurateur Eric Burkhardt. They also work closely with The Food Basket, Hawai’i Island’s food bank, as well as local farmers, restaurants and dozens of volunteers.

Numerous organizations have supported Feeding Our Keiki and Kupuna, including churches and foundations such as Honpa Hongwanji’s Committee on Social Concerns, the Hawai’i Community Foundation, the Kohala Center, Marin County Foundation, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church of Honoka‘a, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Keck Observatory. Community members regularly donate money and items such as eggs, fruits and vegetables from their farms and gardens.

Area youth also get into the act.

Young volunteers include Eagle Scout Nick Newland, 15, who runs the meals from the kitchen to the parking lot, and sisters Sophia and Rowan Whitesell of Honoka‘a High School, who work on the cleanup crew. Jason Rodriguez, a junior at Honoka‘a High, helps deliver meals to the elderly. Emily Atkins, a sophomore at Parker School, helps in the kitchen plating food.

While he was a senior at Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy, Tayson Hirayama, who now attends the University of Washington, regularly washed dishes. For his senior leadership project, he set up a program of additional food distribution in Waimea.

Feeding Our Keiki and Kupuna welcomes new volunteers, and can always use donations of children’s books, fresh produce and simple items such as paper bags and egg cartons.

For more information about the program, click here or find Honoka‘a Hongwanji on Facebook and Twitter.

Donations can be made via PayPal on the temple’s website or mailed to Honoka‘a Hongwanji, P.O. Box 1667, Honoka‘a, HI 96727.

For more information about donating, contact Okumura at 808-640-4602 or via email at [email protected].

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