Island churches are feeding the hungry with healthier fare and backpacks of food for elementary students

One of the food pantry cupboards at St. John the Baptist Parish in Kalihi. (HCH Photo | Anna Weaver)

By Patrick Downes
Hawaii Catholic Herald

Every week, thousands of people in Hawaii go to their nearby Catholic church not for spiritual nourishment, but for something more ordinary and just as essential — food.

More than half of the parishes in our statewide diocese stock staples and more to give away to the hungry. The parish food pantry, run mostly by volunteers, open anywhere from three times a week to once a month, has become commonplace, serving both working class and affluent districts.

The ministry is evolving. Its basic offering is still a pick-up bag of the standard “non-perishables” — canned goods, rice, pasta, cereal. But now there is more of an effort to supplement that with healthier, fresh food.

Parishes are encouraged to grow gardens to provide a nutritious supplement to processed shelf food. Some pantries give hungry elementary school students backpacks filled with food to tide them over long weekends. Others take advantage of the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) monthly food box program for seniors.

A few parishes serve hot meals, the most noteworthy being St. Theresa in Kihei, Maui, which provides dinner every day of the year, and St. Augustine in Waikiki, which hands out lunch on weekdays. Other parishes serve prepared meals on special occasions.

Sinita Alalamua, the parish’s food pantry director, explains how the pantry cupboards are organized. (HCH Photo | Anna Weaver)

About a third of Hawaii’s parishes receive grants from the Catholic Relief Service’s Lenten Rice Bowl campaign, an annual collection.

According to the website for Feeding America, a network of food banks and other hunger-relief organizations, one in nine people in Hawaii, more than 160,000, struggle with hunger. Of these, more than 53,000 are children, one out of every six of Hawaii’s keiki.

The diocesan Office for Social Ministry has placed Hawaii’s 36 parish food pantries into its “One Ohana: Food and Housing for All” initiative. Oahu has 20 pantries. Maui has four. So does Kauai and both east and west Big Island. Molokai has one emergency pantry.

Iwie Tamashiro of the Office for Social Ministry oversees the pantry work.

Tamashiro thinks outside of the brown paper bag when it comes to providing food to the poor. The typical parish food pantry shelves would be stacked with Spam, canned corned beef and Vienna sausage — island favorites, but not the most nutritious choices.

When asked to donate food, folks tend to “clean out their cabinet at home,” she said. The result is a lot of expired food and cans with dents and rust.

“We have to teach people that if you are not going to eat that, don’t give to the poor,” Tamashiro told the Hawaii Catholic Herald in a phone interview this month.

“If you are going to donate food, turn it into a meal,” she said. “If you are going to give spaghetti sauce, give spaghetti too. If you give Hamburger Helper, include a five dollar supermarket gift card to buy the hamburger.”

“We have to think ‘meal,’” she said.

“I am also trying to encourage gardening in some places,” Tamashiro said. A head of cabbage can make a can of corned beef go a long way.

The parish garden

Parishes, in particular rural ones, have parishioners who know something about farming, she said. Some have recruited a team to start a parish garden. She also encourages parishioners to share what is growing in their backyards, like papaya, mango, starfruit and avocados.

Tamashiro said St. Michael Parish in Kailua-Kona, has “an unbelievable garden” in nearby Holualoa, which produces enough food to share with Annunciation Parish up north in Waimea, and two diocese-affiliated HOPE Services Hawaii housing projects. They call it, fittingly, the Sharing Garden.

St. John the Baptist students Jayden Vasai and Elijah Villa Sylvester help carry a senior food box to the sorting tables for a senior recipient on the Nov. 13 pickup day. (HCH Photo | Anna Weaver)

Further north in Hawi, Sacred Heart Parish partnered with an area farm that shared its products and expertise. The experience was a good example of a parish teaming with its surrounding community, Tamashiro said. Such a “community harvest initiative” can yield “tremendous” results.

Sacred Heart, Hawi, is also the parish where the pastor lined his driveway with papaya trees, she said.

“The whole notion of bringing your fruits to the parish and sharing them” gets everyone involved, not just the same parish volunteers, Tamashiro said.

Sacred Heart Parish in Pahoa, also on the Big Island, has a small garden to supplement the food pantry giveaways. “Last month we had a little harvest,” said Bernice Walker, the parish secretary. “We are growing tomatoes and green onions. Eggplants. Herbs. Parsley. Bell peppers. Green beans.”

St. Anthony School in Kailua has an “amazing garden,” Tamashiro said, actually one garden for every classroom.

One of the teachers started it a few years ago as an after-school program. The first year’s harvest was served to the student body. The second year’s was sold to raise money for the victims of the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami. Last year, the harvest went to the parish food pantry.

Occasionally a food effort is diverted. Tamashiro tells the story of a priest from her parish who acquired a plot at the Wahiawa community garden. “I like growing things,” he told her. The only trouble was others also liked what he was growing. Someone was taking his eggplants and zucchini.

“At least somebody is enjoying it,” he said.

Another farming initiative tried by St. Damien Church in Kaunakakai, Molokai, is aquaponics, a system that grows vegetables in water fertilized by a tank of tilapia, which you can eat when they get big enough.

St. Damien Church has also put a basket by the door for donations, said Tamashiro. Such a gesture is “really changing the mindset that (feeding the poor) is the whole community’s responsibility,” she said.

Backpacks for the weekend

The Molokai parish, which covers the entire island except Kalaupapa, started a “backpack program” for school kids who qualify for government-subsidized school breakfast and lunch, but who often go without food over the weekends. The ideas is to give the students backpacks filled with food to take home on Friday to cover Saturday and Sunday meals.

According to Leoda Shizuma, who coordinates Molokai’s backpack program, the parish works with four public and one private elementary schools to fill 125-150 backpacks with food twice a month.

“We have a liaison person at each of the schools who recommend children who could use the program,” she said. “Parents have to sign up.”

The parish, grants and benefactors pay for the reusable backpacks.

The food — child-friendly snacks, fruit, cereal, juice, boxed milk, protein, SpaghettiOs, mac and cheese, things they can prepare themselves — is mostly donated from Maui Food Bank, supplanted by donations.

The children cannot be successful in school if they are constantly hungry, Shizuma said.

According to Tamashiro, the food backpack program has expanded to at least eight parishes.

It helps stop truancy and theft due to hunger.

Some kids whose parents are working and ineligible for subsidized school meals are still food “insecure,” Tamashiro said. “They carry their sack lunch to school and eat it for breakfast. By lunch time they are hungry again.”

Even in middle class neighborhoods like Mililani one can find pockets of poverty, she said, particularly in public housing.

Sacred Heart Parish in Pahoa prepares backpacks for 66 students at Pahoa Elementary.

Gisela McGuire, Sacred Heart’s food pantry director, said that parents apply and the school tells the parish how many backpacks are needed and distributes them.

The food comes from donations, the Food Basket (the Big Island’s food bank) and grants. Members of the parish youth ministry pack the bags.

“We try to supply three complete meals for three days,” McGuire said. “I would like to do more but it is not possible.”

Commercial kitchen

Holy Cross Parish in Kalaheo, Kauai, had a backpack program up until this year, said its food pantry director Clarissa Emayo. “But the food bank, which provided the food, wanted to do another program, a different one.”

The Holy Cross food pantry, which has 20-30 volunteers, distributes canned and packaged goods. Its commercial kitchen also allows it to hand out perishables like eggs, bread and vegetables, said Emayo.

The pantry is mostly stocked by the Kauai Foodbank. Parishioners also give.

“Sometimes we have donations of clothes and other things, which we give out,” she said.

The kitchen also enables the ministry to provide hot meals, 5-6 p.m. on the third Tuesday of the month. They serve “whatever the chefs come up with,” Emayo said, like spaghetti or stew, to between 50-100 individuals, from the homeless to the elderly.

“It fluctuates,” she said.

“Sometimes we go to the park and the beaches to bring food to the homeless people,” she said.

In December, Santa hands out Christmas gifts to the children, Emayo said. Christmastime also brings volunteers and children from St. Theresa Parish and School in Kekaha, two towns over, who help cook and serve food.

“Christmas — that’s when lots of families come,” she said.

St. John the Baptist students Jayden Vasai and Elijah Villa Sylvester help carry a senior food box to the sorting tables for a senior recipient on the Nov. 13 pickup day. (HCH Photo | Anna Weaver)

More than food

St. John the Baptist Parish in the heart of Kalihi has a special weekly ministry for its Chuukese elderly, many of whom are Catholic. It offers more than food. A group gathers every Wednesday for a program called GPS (God’s Precious Seniors). They do a bit of faith sharing, read from the Chuukese Bible, a little exercise. On the second Wednesday of the month, each goes home with a USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) food box from the parish food pantry.

It’s a government program for low-income seniors and doesn’t cost the parish anything. The seniors receive “good portions” of cereal, orange juice, vegetables, canned fruit, rice. Because it is provided by the USDA, “it’s pretty healthy stuff,” said Tamashiro. “No Spam. No ramen.”

According to Sinita Alalamua, director of the St. John the Baptist food pantry, “There is a little bit of everything in the boxes.”

The parish started out giving away 170 boxes. That number has gone down to 133, Alalamua said, because the number of distribution sites in Kalihi has increased.

“We were so fortunate to have seventh and eighth grade students from St. John the Baptist School help carry the boxes,” she said.

St. John the Baptist food pantry also distributes food on Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to “anybody that needs it 18-and-above.”

“We distribute to whoever shows up,” Alalamua said, which is about 20-40 people.

Alalamua is a native of the small French territory of Wallis and Futuna, just west of Samoa, who has lived in Hawaii 43 years and has led the parish food pantry since 2011.

She said the 18 or so pantry volunteers meet after the 7:15 a.m. Mass for fellowship and breakfast before preparing the food for distribution.

The food is procured from the Hawaii Foodbank “once or twice a month.” The pantry also gets donations from parishioners. Parish school students also bring in food when they have a school Mass.

The Kalihi pantry does not have suitable refrigeration to distribute fresh food, Alalamua said. At one time the parish passed out frozen Thanksgiving turkeys, but not anymore.

A lot of immigrants

The food ministry at Christ the King Parish in Kahului, Maui, calls itself the “Friends of the Pantry.” It’s more welcoming, said its director Yolanda Caniaveral.

They are open 2:30-4:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.

“We give out anywhere from 55-70 bags a month, to single persons and households,” she estimates, helping about 250-300 individuals.

Caniaveral said lately she has been noticing a more diverse cliental — “more veterans, a lot of immigrants.”

They come “not only from our church community, but from the outside community,” she said.

The Food Pantry also receives referrals from 211 emergency calls. That’s the number people call to get information about social services for everyday needs and in times of crisis. According to Caniaveral, these might be people “just getting out from jail, at a pregnancy center, at the Maui Mental Health Center. It all depends.”

“We get our food from the church community,” Caniaveral said, and from efforts like the parish preschool Thanksgiving food drive. The parish youth ministry also makes the food pantry its special project.

There are others sources, too, like the federal government. The community is generous. “During the holidays we are pretty much loaded with food,” she said.

“We try to do a hot meal at least four times a year,” she said, “Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and before summer ends.” Some years these have been sitdown dinners, other years takeout.

The parish serves 100-150 people, kids to adults, depending on the time and day, she said. “I would say 15 percent are homeless,” she said. “They come from all over, from Lahaina to Kihei.”

Yolanda has worked at the pantry for five years. Her volunteers are between the ages of 60 and 88. A couple of them have been there since the pantry started in 1985.

(HCH Photo | Anna Weaver)

Emergency food days

The pantry at Sacred Heart Parish in Pahoa is open 10 a.m. to noon on the third Thursday of every month. But it also has “emergency” food days — Mondays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. — for people who are down and out, said Gisela McGuire, “in between food stamps.”

“In October we gave out emergency food to 76 families, totaling a couple hundred individuals,” she said. “Regular recipients for that month numbered about 500. It varies from month to month. You never can predict.”

The number of people needing help keeps growing, Walker said. “But we allow families to collect only twice a month.”

“We give to anybody,” she said. “A lot are homeless, on the low end of the pay scale, disabled, on pensions. We get a lot of elderly people for sure.”

McGuire said lately she has been noticing many out-of-state drivers’ licenses, “quite a few from Minnesota” for some unknown reason.

Around Christmas, the parish gives out more than food. It has several “giving trees” that collect toys for children and blankets and booties and other age-appropriate gifts for kupuna.

Based on previous years, the parish secretary Walker estimates that this year the parish will pass out around 200 toys, collected from parishioners, donated by Toys for Tots, and bought by the parish.

The pantry also has rummage tables with clothing, shoes, handbags, kitchen items — all for the taking.

Sacred Hearts’ 300-400 active parishioners are great sources of support, Walker said. The parish also gets financial help from the “rich” parishes on the other side of the island.

Originally from Germany, McGuire has lived in Hawaii for 30 years. She loves her work keeping the food pantry going.

“This is my ministry.” As a former retail manager at Walmart, she said, “I am used to dealing with this kind of thing.”

“We are supposed to help people,” she said. “I don’t mind doing it at my age as long as I can.”

Read the article  direct through the Hawaii Catholic Herald  here.