By MICHAEL BRESTOVANSKY Hawaii Tribune-Herald | Thursday, March 26, 2020, 12:05 a.m.

Seven members of the Boys and Girls Club of the Big Island sent more than 200 meals to East Hawaii shelters on Wednesday to help support at-risk people during the coronavirus pandemic.

With after-school programs closing as the spring break lengthens, the Boys and Girls Club has set up a new program to provide meals not only to low-income children, but also to homeless kupunas and other struggling people, as well.

Chad Cabral, CEO of the club, said the Community Support Meal Initiative currently provides about 230 hot meals each day from Monday to Friday to three HOPE Services Hawaii shelters in Hilo and one more in Pahoa, as well as to the Salvation Army homeless resource center, and to community centers in Keaukaha and Panaewa.

Cabral said the program likely will expand into West Hawaii within the next few weeks, with the number of meals to grow to more than 500 a day.

“With everything going on, and with our after-school programs not happening, we wondered how we can support our various communities — children, the homeless, kupuna?” Cabral said. “A lot of our elderly population get their support from churches or other community groups, and they’ve been drastically reduced these days.”

Using the club’s commercial kitchen in Hilo, six other club employees have been “repurposed” to help prepare, package and deliver meals each day. Cabral said the program allows the club to retain some employees, who each follow diligent hygiene protocols to avoid contamination: Each employee wears gloves and a face mask while working in the kitchen.

The program began Monday and has already received positive feedback, Cabral said. The food is packaged in such a way as to still be hot when delivered to shelters, and is made up of local foods that hopefully will be popular enough to cut down on food waste.

Cabral said the program will continue as long as the club can afford it. Currently, the program is funded solely by the nonprofit’s unrestricted funds, which Cabral said might not be sustainable for extended periods.

However, the program also has support from prominent political figures. Mayoral candidate Ikaika Marzo visited the kitchen Tuesday to deliver a large supply of reusable respirator masks left over from the Kilauea eruption. While such masks are generally ineffective at protecting the wearer from viral infection, they can prevent droplets from the nose and mouth from infecting others.

Cabral said the new masks will be distributed among workers to help cut down on consumption of disposable masks.

State Sen. Kai Kahele also made an appearance Tuesday to offer his support.

“Right now, this is the only large school food program running in the state,” Kahele said, adding that he is in the process of launching a $250,000 fundraising campaign to allow the program to increase the number of daily meals it can provide.

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