Waimea and Waikoloa kupuna are the latest to receive nutritious meals and fresh locally sourced produce delivered to their doors thanks to federal coronavirus relief funds.
Waimea resident Patti Cook and her loyal band of 10 volunteers on Wednesday loaded coolers at Kuhio Hale with meals provided by the Hawaii County Economic Opportunity Council (HCEOC) for the first delivery to 140 seniors in Waimea and Waikoloa. For each senior: five frozen dinners plus a bag of fresh produce.
Cook said she learned about the nonprofit’s program taking place in Ka‘u, Mountain View, South Kona, Hamakua, Hilo, and Kawaihae targeting low-income kupuna and thought of her neighbors in South Kohala.
“We said, ‘we want to play,’” she recalled.
Currently, the HCEOC is servicing 700 seniors around the island, which equates to about 3,500 meals a week and 700 produce bags. The nonprofit states its mission is to “reduce, mitigate and alleviate poverty in the County of Hawaii.”
“We’ve actually been doing this since March, at the beginning of the virus,” said HCEOC spokesperson Joel Lily.
That’s when the county’s Office of Aging nutrition program, which provides kupuna with meals, shut down. The HCEOC, which was contracted to provide transportation for kupuna between the program, grocery stores and other locations, was then contracted to provide additional services, including food service and delivery.
To do so, the nonprofit blended its existing food service program that primarily serviced preschools in the Hilo area with its transportation capabilities, said Lily.
Buying from local farmers and ranchers, utilizing existing food service staff, and hiring additional cooks and prep cooks, she said the HCEOC ramped up operations.
“They go from morning to evening to make the meals. We have a freezer and we store it and daily our drivers pick up the meals and go down and pick up the bags of produce and deliver to volunteers across the island, who in turn deliver to the kupuna,” Lily explained.
The effort, some seven months later, was recently bolstered by a $655,000 grant from Hawaii County funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The funding allowed the HCEOC to expand the program to include Waikoloa and Waimea as well as a bag of fresh produce.
“Since we already had this program running, we took advantage of it to increase both our ingredients and provide senior not just with frozen food but fresh produce to go with it,” said Lily.
To ensure the food reaches those who need it most, Lily said the nonprofit partners with community organizations, like the Waimea Resilience Hub.
“They know on the ground best what the need is in the community so instead of us coming from Hilo to tell them where it was going, we thought that was working better,” she said.
The Waimea Resilience Hub was recently created by Cook, the Hawaii Community Foundation, Vibrant Hawaii, Friends of the Future, St. James Episcopal Church and individual volunteers.
“Back during the eruption there was recognition about the value of a resilience hub,” said Cook. “Out of that came the realization of a need islandwide in communities around the island for a team of people who are thinking about, on a continuing basis, resilience for your community and really knowing the community and knowing who is vulnerable or where your resources are.”
Cook gathered volunteers who knew their communities and started signing up qualifying seniors in Waimea and Waikoloa.
On Wednesday, they made their first deliveries, though a few seniors opted to pick up their meals and produce at Kuhio Hale in Waimea.
“We are lucky to be here in such a beautiful place,” said Cook. “Generally, people have the misconception that Waimea is an affluent place, but there is a great income gap here. There is such a dependence on the visitor industry there’s lots of folks that are under water. There is so much dependence on the visitor industry who are now unemployed. There is a huge amount of need. It is our kuleana for us to help.”