The disparity between those who have and those who have not is growing. “Everybody’s a paycheck away from the beach,” says Michelle Panoke of Hawaii Foodbank Kauai Branch (HFKB).
And if you don’t believe it, just drive by any of HFKB’s 29 agencies around the island, including St. Michael and All Angels’ Episcopal Church on a distribution day, and the evidence is clear. “You’ll see the crowds,” says Charlie King, one of the HFKB’s long-standing board members.
Last year, the local food bank served more than 13,000 people on Kauai, which includes nearly 8,000 adults, more than 4,000 children and more than 1,000 seniors. With an estimated population of around 72,000, that’s around 18 percent of the island’s residents.
“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” says Gerald Shintaku, Hawaii Foodbank’s newly appointed president and CEO. “We don’t know what’s underneath the surface.”
In order to help support those who are hungry, the nonprofit is hosting its annual Food Drive Day Saturday (April 15). Monetary and food donations, which stay on-island, will be accepted between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. at Big Save in Eleele, Koloa and Waimea; Safeway in Kapaa and Lihue; at Princeville Center; and at Walmart.
What’s more, the organization is launching a senior program this month that will help feed more kupuna. The federal Commodity Supplemental Food Program will distribute boxes filled with nonperishable items such as beans, cereal and canned vegetables to 250 eligible seniors each month on Kauai. Kupuna often already are struggling to make ends meet and the new program will help keep them nourished. “We all have kupuna; we all have grandparents and parents who we have to take care of,” says Shintaku.
Panoke, who currently is signing up seniors with proper identification for the program, says the entire community is having an easier time asking for help since HFKB first opened in 2010.
“We have tried very hard to make sure they know there is no shame in asking,” she says.
Wesley Perreira, HFKB manager, has been through the struggle people experience when asking for help and ensures HFKB never turns anyone away. They’ll even provide an emergency box of food to those who come to the headquarters in Puhi in search of immediate aid. He recalls one young lady in a predicament who did so recently. “She mustered enough courage to come here when she felt horrible doing it, but she really needed it,” he says.
Panoke has had similar experiences.
“It takes every ounce of whatever they have in them just to ask for help,” she says.
What’s touching for her and Perreira is that when people visit the food bank, they feel the need to apologize for having to ask for help.
“Don’t be sorry, there’s no shame in asking,” says Panoke. “The only shame is not asking and letting your family starve because you’re too proud.”
Overcoming pride and gaining enough confidence to ask for help is one of the reasons why the amount of food distributed on Kauai last year (almost 1.3 million pounds) grew some 9 percent from 2015. Addison Bulosan, an HFKB board member who grew up on Kauai, has watched how the number of hungry individuals has risen over the years. “It’s a fundamental need,” says Bulosan, of The Specific Chiropractic Center.
Unexpected health care expenses are one reason people find themselves in a financially dire position. As a health care provider, Bulosan has seen patients choose between addressing pain or eating. “The deal is, you’ve got to eat,” he says.
Among reasons people go hungry is trouble finding or keeping work because of disabilities, which Lesah Merritt, Hokulei Village Safeway store manager and HFKB board member, instead compassionately calls “possibilities.” Not only does she make sure the grocery store provides weekly food donations to HFKB, but also Merritt provides people with “possibilities” jobs. “I hear their stories and I feel for them,” she says.
Diane Keeler, Walmart store manager and HFKB board member, also believes in serving the community. As the oldest of seven siblings, she understands what it’s like to not have proper nutrition. That’s why she wants everyone else to have options and is part of initiating Walmart’s weekly food contribution to the HFKB.
Being a voluntary part of the organization is something all board members are proud of. “At the end of the day, at some point, either today or 50 years from now, it’s going to be your last breath and the question is, ‘What have you done?’” says Bulosan.
Making a difference in people’s lives is why he, fellow HFKB board members, as well as employees, continue doing what they do, including forming long-lasting relationships along the way. “It’s these little connections we make,” says Perreira regarding why he’s been with the HFKB since the beginning.
For more information about HFKB or to learn more about the upcoming Food Drive Day, visit hawaiifoodbank.org/kauai or call 482-2224.