Hawaii Foodbank President Ron Mizutani Comes Full Circle
Jodie Chiemi Ching
This past April’s devastating floods forced residents of Kaua‘i’s North Shore to once again muster their inner strength and power through the crisis. It was almost a repeat of September 1992, when Hurricane ‘Iniki, a category 4 storm, came ashore on the Garden Island, packing sustained winds of 145 miles per hour that tore rooftops off of buildings and downed trees and power lines throughout the island.
By contrast, the storm that wreaked havoc on Kaua‘i’s North Shore in April was largely a rain issue. But the 28 inches of rain that deluged the island for 24 hours straight triggered major landslides and flooding, cutting off residents from the rest of the island.
At least five landslides shut down Kühiö Highway, the island’s main thoroughfare, forcing the Kaua‘i Fire Department to use jet skis to rescue stranded residents. Houses were swept off of their foundations and Hanalei Valley looked like a huge lake. These were some of the postings on Facebook in the days after the April 14 flood.
Meanwhile in Honolulu, veteran KHON newsman Ron Mizutani was wrapping up a long career in television news and gearing up for a new role as president and CEO of the nonprofit Hawaii Foodbank.
“It happened right when I landed the job,” said Mizutani. “The storm hit on the 15th and I started on the 27th. So by the time I got here, we as an organization were already in motion in responding to Kaua‘i. I wanted to see it firsthand, as well, so I flew there and saw the damage and devastation. It was eerily similar to what ‘Iniki did to the island in ’92 and I covered that, as well, at KHON.”
The Hawaii Foodbank’s response to the April flooding was immediate.
“We quickly moved into action and contacted our agencies and asked, ‘How can we help?’ Food wasn’t even getting into the North Shore,” said Mizutani. “We had to find creative ways to get the food to those folks who were still stranded and isolated. The community had to literally boat-in food and take food in via rafts and everything else.”
Like the Hawaii Foodbank does on O‘ahu, the Kaua‘i branch collects food and distributes it among its member agencies, Mizutani explained. “We have about 30 agencies on Kaua‘i that distribute the food. That includes food pantries, churches and soup kitchens. In the North Shore community, we have three agencies that work from Kïlauea all the way to Hä‘ena or Wainiha. They are the contact to the hungry on the North Shore.”
In the weeks following the floods, over 100,000 pounds of food was sent to the North Shore communities of Kaua‘i. But that didn’t stop the Kaua‘i branch from distributing food to other agencies island-wide that didn’t suffer as much from the storm.
“It really taxed our staff,” says Mizutani. “We only have five people working there. It’s amazing what they do. It really, really is. But the response by the community was incredibly positive. Kaua‘i has been through storms before — they know how to survive, and they are very resilient. And, that is where my family is from, so I have seen it firsthand.”
The April floods brought life full circle for Mizutani. Twenty-six years earlier, Hurricane ‘Iniki had made a difference in his life and that, in part, explained Mizutani’s motivation to work for the Hawaii Foodbank.
“When ‘Iniki hit in ’92, it devastated our properties,” Mizutani recalls. “My mom and dad are both from Kaua‘i, and my sister still lives there, as well as my aunts, uncles and cousins.
“I was covering the storm on the Leeward coast of O‘ahu at the time for Channel 2, knowing that it was heading straight for Kaua‘i. My mom had gotten out on the last flight (to Kaua‘i), and my dad was working at Hawaiian Tel at the time. He had gotten out (to Kaua‘i) before, because he knew we were going to get hit. And my mom wanted to help her mom and our family there to get through the storms. So everyone was on Kaua‘i, except me, that day, because I had to work.
“While I covered the storm, we (O‘ahu) got hit. But it was nothing like Kaua‘i,” he continued. “I knew my family’s lives were in danger. The next day, we sent our cameraman up in the helicopter to survey the damage, and I still had not heard from my family because there was no communication. The cell phones were spotty at best and there were no landlines working because all the utility poles had been blown down. So I didn’t even know if they were alive.
“I was uncomfortable for at least 24 hours. But then our cameraman came back with our helicopter pilot, Captain Irwin Malzman and George Cabral Jr. — that was the name of our photographer — they have a long history at Channel 2.”
Mizutani recalled Cabral coming into the newsroom and cueing up his videotape. “I need you to look at something,” Cabral said. Mizutani watched the tape.
“I don’t know why, but as we were leaving, something told me to circle back,” Cabral told Mizutani.
“Now I’m getting chicken skin,” laughs Mizutani as he relived watching the images Cabral had captured. “They did a circle, and it was our property. And so I was able to see the damage that ‘Iniki had done, but I was able to see my family, too. I was like, ‘Oh my God, why are you doing this to me?’ But at the same time, I was like ‘GASP! There’s my dad, my cousins and my grandma and everything,’ so I was able to at least know that they were OK.”
The station subsequently sent Mizutani to Kaua‘i to cover ‘Iniki’s aftermath, including from his own family’s perspective.
“It was real heavy, but moving forward, as Kaua‘i was recovering, there was a need for food.” There was no foodbank on Kaua‘i, so the Hawaii Foodbank on O‘ahu shipped over a million pounds of food for Kaua‘i’s people. That, said Mizutani, was the beginning of the effort to start a foodbank on the Garden Island.
In 1992, Mizutani’s family received food from the Hawaii Foodbank. “It is something I have never forgotten,” he says.
Mizutani is also extremely grateful to his mother, Phyllis Leilani Clemente, who raised two children as a single parent while working three jobs. “We struggled at times, but it was no big deal eating Vienna Sausage out of a can,” he says. “I know what it is like to be without and that motivates me. It is my turn to give back.”
Since joining the Hawaii Foodbank, Mizutani has been learning the disaster assistance side of his CEO role on the job.
When Hurricane Lane was on a path to hit the Hawaiian Islands in August, the Hawaii Foodbank’s assistance was sought at two emergency shelters.
“During Hurricane Lane, the state Department of Education turned to the Hawaii Foodbank and asked for food at two of their shelters — McKinley (High School) and Farrington (High School). We immediately responded in the storm and provided food, water and supplies to more than 300 people.”
DOE Superintendent Dr. Christina Kishimoto gave a shout-out to the Hawaii Foodbank on social media, tweeting: “A big Mahalo to the Hawaii Foodbank for driving well over one hour to support our neighbors at the McKinley High (School) emergency shelter by providing food and water. Now that’s Aloha!”
Mizutani said his mother was sad to learn that he was leaving broadcast journalism to pursue to a new opportunity. But as soon as he told her where he was going, “she was so happy and proud,” said Mizutani with a smile that stretched from ear to ear, especially since he knew how hard she had worked to put food on the table for her children and to make ends meet.
“So many of us are just a paycheck away, or a disaster away or something unfortunate health-wise, who may need services, too.” And, that isn’t even taking into account the high cost of living in Hawai‘i.
“The numbers don’t lie,” says Mizutani. “One in five people in Hawai‘i is hungry. It’s shocking. But you can see it. You know, I have been to some of our distributions here on O‘ahu, where we have mass distribution of food and people are standing in line — 500 or 600 people in line. A lot of them are seniors and they’re smiling. It’s a social justice issue, too.
“In our culture, it’s hard to ask [for help]. Some people are shame to ask, so they hide the fact that they’re hungry. But for them to go to these distribution points and know others surround them in a similar situation, it tugs at your heart.
One of the Hawaii Foodbank’s biggest distribution centers is at the Samoan church (Hawaii First Samoan Assembly of God) under the H-1 freeway, near Palama Settlement, he said.
“There are 500 to 600 people gathering boxes of healthy food. There’s produce, breads, dairy, and they take that food home to their family, so really, we are serving 3,000 people. And when you think of it that way, you just go ‘Wow! There’s a lot of hungry people there.’ We are touching a lot of lives. So that’s motivating for me,” Mizutani said.
The community can support the Hawaii Foodbank in various ways, he said. Besides donating food, they can also participate in the Hawaii Foodbank’s community events, which include golf tournaments, the annual Hunger Walk, the National Association of Letter Carriers’ Stamp Out Hunger Drive and the Hawaii Foodbank’s Kick-off Breakfast.
The community can help the Hawai‘i Foodbank by donating nutritious foods. Its top five “most wanted” items are:
1) canned proteins such as tuna and chicken;
2) canned meals such as stews, spaghetti and chili;
3) canned vegetables;
4) canned fruits; and
“We love Spam in Hawai‘i and we love Vienna Sausage and that will always be one of the first items taken off the shelves. But I would love to expand, and one of the goals I already set for the organization is to increase our distribution and also donations of our produce. We work with the farmers. So I want to see more produce donations. I want us to gather more produce and then distributing it to more people.
“Aloun Farms is probably our biggest supporter, and a lot of things are seasonal, so we’ll take whatever they have a surplus of. But if we can motivate — this is where the state Legislature can help, as well — find ways to give incentives to farmers. We need produce in Hawai‘i. Farmers don’t want to lose money by putting the product right back into the land. We need to have incentives for farmers, and that is something I want to work [on] with the Legislature,” said Mizutani. “I got big plans!”
Mizutani beamed with pride as he led me on a tour of the Hawaii Foodbank warehouse. Like a kid showing off his new clubhouse, he explained the operations and introduced volunteers and workers, telling me who had been there the longest, who volunteers every week and each person’s strength. Some were beneficiaries of the Hawaii Foodbank and, like Mizutani, work or volunteer at the foodbank to give back.
At age 53, Ron Mizutani has found a new calling — one he embraces passionately.
“The Hawaii Foodbank is on solid ground today because of people like (founder) John White, (past chair) Linda Chu Takayama and (now-retired president and CEO) Dick Grimm –– people who believed in serving with compassion and being advocates for Hawai‘i‘s hungry,” says Mizutani. “I promise to carry their torch with that same commitment and passion. It is a legacy that I am grateful for and humbled to be a part of.”
The Stylistics in Concert — A Benefit for the Hawaii Foodbank
On Sunday, Dec. 30, the much-loved ’70s group, The Stylistics, will do a special concert benefitting the Hawaii Foodbank at the Neal Blaisdell Concert Hall at 8 p.m. The Stylistics is known for such ’70s hits as “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” “Betcha By Golly Wow,” “I’m Stone in Love With You,” “Break Up to Make Up” and more. Special VIP packages benefitting the Hawaii Foodbank are being offered. They include a variety of preconcert dinner options, premium concert seats, valet parking, an after-concert reception and more. For ticket information, visit www.hawaiifoodbank.com.