Addressing  Kūpuna Hunger in Hawai‘i

Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

A Lasting Impact

As the calendar year comes to a close, various non-profit organizations in Hawai‘i and nationally begin sending out their solicitation letters to prospective donors, hoping that members of the public will financially support community-based organizations that do good work throughout the year for those in need.

As a caregiver for my mother in the last years of her life, I would assist her with some of her paperwork in preparation for the approaching tax season and help her sort through her mail, which often included reminders from nonprofit organizations about the benefits of making a tax-deductible contribution.

“Mom,” I would ask, “are there any organizations that you want to donate money to before the year ends?”

When faced with a lot of different choices, my mother was not the type of person to quickly come up with an answer. But in this case there was no hesitation.

“The Salvation Army,” she would answer swiftly.

The first time she did that, it surprised me. “Why the Salvation Army?” I asked. As far as I knew back then, our only contact with the Salvation Army was to drop off used clothing and household items at one of its donation collection sites.

“Because when we were poor” – she was referring to her early childhood growing up in Chinatown’s Tin Can Alley around where the Chinese Cultural Plaza in downtown Honolulu stands today – “they would bring us food so we could eat. I always remember that.”

This was told to me by a mother who was in her late 70s and whose memory of more recent things was not always as sharp. But she clearly remembered people bringing food to her childhood family home so that she, her siblings and parents would not go hungry. This was during and just after the Great Depression of the 1930s, when poverty, unemployment and hunger were widespread, not only in Hawai‘i but nationwide. This was before federal social programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were in existence. Tin Can Alley in the 1930s was a densely populated low-income neighborhood and included businesses like bars, cafes and poolrooms. Some have described it as a slum, and others thought it had character.

To make matters worse my maternal grandmother was widowed in 1919 when she was only in her mid-20s after her first husband died in the so-called Spanish flu pandemic, leaving my grandmother with three young children to care for on her own and another one on the way. She was pregnant when her husband died. She had hungry mouths to feed as a single mother for about a decade before she remarried and had four more children with her second husband. Her firstborn from the first marriage died in childhood after an illness. One wonders whether she had the resources to seek care for him at the time and how that must have weighed on her conscience for the rest of her life.

To understand an older person’s current behaviors and ways of thinking, you often have to understand their past life experiences. My mother was someone who abhorred wasting food. I recall one day when I was cleaning out her refrigerator and came across a bowl of chopped iceberg lettuce that she had saved from a previous meal. However, the lettuce was wilting.

“Mom, I’m going to throw this salad away,” I said. “We have more lettuce. I’ll make you a new one.”

“No!” she yelled. “I’m saving it.”

“But it’s old,” I said. “Lettuce is not expensive.” (Well, maybe now it is, but it wasn’t back then.)

“Just leave it,” she said. “I’ll eat it later.” And that’s what she did.

So I helped my mother in her later years make her contributions to the Salvation Army, a way for her to pay it forward, I suppose. It was an organization that, among other things, helped families that were “food insecure” to meet the most basic survival needs. After visiting the Salvation Army’s Hawaiian and Pacific Islands Division website in preparation for this article, I found timely evidence of the organization’s response to a current community need.

A recent update posted on the organization’s website said: “As of August 21, The Salvation Army officers, staff and volunteers have invested over 3,500 hours in disaster response efforts to provide for Maui survivors’ immediate needs while also identifying marginalized communities that will need longer-term assistance. Since the onset of the Maui wildfire disaster, the organization has prepared and served over 23,000 meals and coordinated more than 125,000 meals at 34 feeding locations. The Salvation Army disaster response personnel continue collaborating with federal, state and local emergency management agencies and other partners to monitor ongoing impacts and adapt response efforts as needed.”

Of course the Salvation Army is one of a number of organizations helping survivors of the Maui wildfires, along with federal, state and county agencies and individual citizens or small groups of people doing what they can whenever and wherever they see a need. It is also one of a number of organizations addressing food insecurity in one way or another, a long-term problem that greatly worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is Food Security?

You may have heard the term “food security” used in recent years, but what does it really mean? There are various definitions, but in simple terms, being food secure means you have both physical and economic access to food that is nutritious and that you are able to acquire such food on a consistent basis. According to Feeding America, the largest charity to end food hunger in the United States, almost 12% of the population in Hawai‘i is food insecure, and food insecurity “is associated with numerous adverse social and health outcomes and is increasingly considered a critical public health issue.”

What kinds of things lead to food insecurity? Some of the leading causes include unemployment, poverty and “income shocks,” which are sudden and significant drops in a person’s income. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people lost their jobs in massive numbers or had their hours significantly reduced. In addition, social distancing and isolation resulted in changes to the way people provided for themselves and their families. Older adults living alone or with insufficient family and social support were particularly vulnerable to food insecurity as many were concerned about going to the store, taking public transportation, and doing other things that they did before the pandemic.

The Kūpuna Collective

Often in our darkest times of crisis and desperation, something amazing happens to shine a path forward. The Hawai‘i Public Health Institute estimates that approximately 57,000 older adults live alone. For those in this population who have physical disabilities or chronic illnesses, they may be particularly challenged to get consistent access to nutritious food. This is true even in the best of times, but during a pandemic or other crisis, they may be among the most vulnerable for food insecurity. Existing food service providers may also be overwhelmed by the increased need and their own challenges with recruiting and retaining staff and volunteers to meet the additional workload.

During the pandemic, it became clear that the need to coordinate food service to Hawai‘i’s “kūpuna at risk” was imperative. Out of this collective understanding emerged an entity called the Kūpuna Food Security Coalition (KFSC), which brought together non-profit, government and community stakeholders statewide to address the food needs of Hawai‘i’s older adults, strengthening existing partnerships and building new ones. The Hawai‘i Public Health Institute served as a backbone organization and as fiscal sponsor and included the leadership of Derrick

Ariyoshi at the City and County of Honolulu’s Elderly Affairs Division and AARP Hawaii. Over the first nine months of its existence, KFSC delivered 1.2 million meals to kūpuna in need statewide, according to a University of Hawai‘i news article. The coalition took an “all hands on deck” approach to address kūpuna food needs and today dozens of partners contribute to sustainable food security solutions around a collective mission to ensure that no kŪpuna go hungry or without the resources to support aging in place.

Even more impressive is that from KFSC another organization evolved called the Kūpuna Collective, which continued to embrace kūpuna food security as part of its mission but expanded to include other initiatives with names such as Age-Friendly Honolulu, KŪpuna Vaccination Outreach Group, and KŪpuna Digital Inclusion Workgroup. The KŪpuna Collective is coordinated by the Hawai‘i Public Health Institute and the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa Center on Aging, which is part of the Thompson School of Social Work and Public Health. The coalition holds monthly meetings that includes representatives from dozens of organizations serving Hawai‘i’s older adult population in some way to encourage resource sharing and collaborative and innovative solutions that support and empower kŪpuna.

The Kūpuna Collective has been a critical information hub for everyone interested in kūpuna food security from policy makers and agencies at the federal, state and county levels to direct service providers (those working on the frontlines providing person-to-person contact to clients) at food banks, Meals on Wheels and food subsidy-type benefits programs. For example, SNAP, which stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is a federal program administered at the state level by the Department of Human Services Benefit, Employment, and Support Services Division. SNAP provides food and nutritional support to qualifying low-income and needy households. Every county government in Hawai‘i (Honolulu, Maui, Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i Island) has an office dedicated to aging-related services and provides online access to a resource directory known as the Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC). These offices can provide information about long-term support and services. Hawai‘i’s Executive Office on Aging (EOA) can be an initial point of contact for referrals. Its phone number is 808-643-2372 and to visit the Hawai‘i ADRC website, go to

Kūpuna Food Security and Transportation

As mentioned above, one of the challenges to food security for older adults is the lack of consistent access to nutritious food. This is particularly true for frail elders who live alone, dont drive and have no one who can help them get basic grocery items.

For almost 35 years, Project Dana – a faith-in-action program – has provided a variety of services to frail older adults, individuals with disabilities and family caregivers to ensure their wellbeing, independence, and dignity in an environment of their choice. One of those essential services provided by Project Dana is transportation.

“If we have the appropriate and available volunteers we do try to offer transportation for grocery shopping and medical appointments,” said executive director Cyndi Osajima. Potential clients are first screened for eligibility, a necessary step as the organizations resources are limited and relies on trained volunteers and a small staff operating out of the Mö‘ili‘ili Hongwanji Mission, where it all began in 1989 by co-founders Shimeji Kanazawa and Rose Nakamura, now both deceased.

Osajima, who has been with Project Dana since 1991, carries forward the organization’s mission of providing compassionate support and services to Hawai‘i’s kūpuna and their families. Over the decades, she can recall stories of clients who have been helped by Project Dana and developed lasting relationships with the organization, its staff and volunteers. She recalls words of wisdom from her mentor Nakamura who told her, “Everyone from the street sweeper to the president still needs help.” Other services and programs include a caregiver support group, information about fall prevention and friendly visits with homebound elders. For more information, visit the organizations website at

In short, transportation, mobility and food security are all interrelated, and food security is directly related to an older person’s overall health status. Even if an older person is able to pay for food, the inability to get to it or have it delivered is an obstacle to food security. That is why programs like Meals on Wheels are so critical to helping elders age in place. There are various Meals on Wheels programs in Hawai‘i. In such programs, prepared food is delivered directly to the home. In addition to providing nutrition to elders, the meal delivery person – often a volunteer – does a brief check-in to make sure the elder is okay. If no one comes to the door, the meal delivery person can call a supervisor to report the lack of response, and the supervisor can follow up with a designated contact person.

Other programs have emerged throughout the state as part of a rapid response to a critical need. Community members have banded together to make sure their friends and neighbors are food secure, working with existing food service providers like restaurants, farmers, distribution companies and food banks. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Maui wildfires that destroyed Lähainä are two such disasters that have given rise to rapid response aid from community members and organizations that have set up pop-up tents and impromptu programs to address immediate needs with or without government assistance.

Helping Maui’s Wildfire Survivors

There may be no better recent example of community organizing for food security than the rapid response of Maui community members working on their own or in collaboration with community organizations,  businesses and government agencies to feed and shelter those whose lives were devastated by the wildfires that destroyed most of Lähainä town. Maui residents used their own land vehicles and boats to make deliveries and organized distribution centers stocked with donated food, water and much-needed supplies.

Organizations like Maui Food Bank set up a disaster food drive, emergency volunteer sign-up and food collection/distribution points. A number of faith-based organizations stepped up their community services in response to urgent and critical needs. The American Red Cross, Hawai‘i Community Foundation and many other organizations throughout the state and nation added their support to federal, state and county services. While promises of financial support continue to pour in, the immediate needs were answered by those with boots on the ground, right there in the thick of things. It was heartbreaking for many to watch on television the pleas of residents in the immediate aftermath of the destruction asking for the most basic items: food, water, ice, hygiene products, baby formula and so forth. Many other needs were voiced, such as help finding missing family, friends and pets; adequate short- and long-term housing; charging devices; batteries; wheelchairs; tents; and money for essentials, especially for those who lost everything in the fires except the clothes on their backs and very little else.

During times of natural disasters, the older members of the population are often the most vulnerable because of their inability to quickly evacuate. They may live alone and not have reliable transportation or communication options. They may be uncertain about when is the right time to leave and where to go. They may not be in good health to begin with, which makes evacuating or sheltering-in-place more challenging. As such, the goodwill of their fellow community members and the services and support that are intended to help them during a disaster can make all the difference as to whether or not they survive.

In the case of the Maui wildfires in Lähainä, the flames arrived faster than many could flee the area. The full extent of the human death toll continues to unfold and may not be exactly known for a while, but as of this writing, the number of people who have died as a result of the wildfires makes it the worst natural disaster in the state’s history and the highest number of deaths from a wildfire in a hundred years in U.S. history.

Sadly, the Lahaina Hongwanji Buddhist temple was burned in the fire. Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii leaders Rev. Toshiyuki Umitani, Bishop; Rev. Blayne Higa, Chair of the Committee on Social Concerns; and Dr. Warren Tamamoto, president, released a statement to members statewide on Thursday, Aug. 10 to provide an update.

“The temple, columbarium, classroom building and minister’s residence were completely destroyed in the horrific fires that devastated historic Lahaina town,” the letter stated. “Many temple members were forced to evacuate, and many homes were burnt to the ground. Our hearts go out to all who have been impacted by this disaster. As residents and our fellow Sangha members begin the process of rebuilding and healing, Hawaii Kyodan is committed to supporting relief efforts on Maui.”

A Maui Disaster Relief Fund has been set up by the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin to support the Lahaina Hongwanji and relief efforts on Maui. Information on ways to donate can be found at Betsuin’s website at Meanwhile Hongwanji members young and old from neighboring areas on Maui have been doing what they can to help in the effort, including with food preparation and distribution and in other ways. For example, one observer stated that Makawao Hongwanji members prepared Spam musubi for shelters, purchased sports drinks for first responders, prepared trays of food and coordinated with the Salvation Army for distribution at shelters.

Older Adults in Hawai‘i Are Increasing

Older adults comprise about one-fifth of the total population of Hawai‘i today. In real numbers, that is more than 280,000 people living in Hawai‘i who are 65 and older. The aging of the Baby Boom cohort (those born between 1946 and 1964) are contributing to this growth of older people in the population, but also contributing to it is Hawai‘i’s average life expectancy, which is the highest in the nation. Adult children are typically on the frontlines of family caregiving when their parents need help, but a growing number of older people are aging without children or with children who have moved out of Hawai‘i due to the state’s high cost of living. As a result, the available pool of family caregivers is shrinking. With this in mind, community support and government programs will be critical to help older adults who need assistance aging in place or who cannot live alone safely in the years ahead.

This is not to say that all older people are dependent on younger people for their care. On the contrary, there are many older adults who lead active lives and actually contribute to their families and to society in different ways. Many of Project Dana’s volunteers are themselves older adults, as are volunteers for other community-based organizations. But those who do need assistance – and there will always be a segment of the population that does – the community will have to come together as they have to address the problem of kūpuna food insecurity to fill the gaps in care. That will truly be a test of the aloha spirit because it is a long-term and consistent commitment involving a cross-sector of dedicated community partners in government, community-based organizations, healthcare, business, academia, social services, faith-based organizations and age-friendly intergenerational programs.

The outpouring of support for the survivors of the Lähainä wildfires will likely live on in the memories of the children who will remember not only the trauma of deep loss they witnessed and experienced but also the overwhelming sense of caring directed at their families and communities by both friend and stranger. These acts of thoughtfulness and kindness seem to persist in the human memory well into old age. I hope that – like my mother – they will take comfort knowing that good people helped clear a path forward during dark and difficult times. And then, if they can, help do the same for others.

The Lahaina Hongwanji before it burned down in the recent Maui wildfires. (Photo by Alan Kubota, Lenscapes Photography)
The Lahaina Hongwanji before it burned down in the recent Maui wildfires. (Photo by Alan Kubota, Lenscapes Photography)

Sometimes the problems of the world seem too enormous to overcome. There is a beautiful old story that has been adapted by many different cultures about animals escaping from a forest fire. One small bird keeps flying back and forth to a river to carry a few drops of water in its beak and on its wings to help put out the fire. Some of the forest animals tell the bird to give up because those few drops of water won’t make any difference. The small bird replies, “I am doing what I can with what I have.”

If enough people were to adopt the mindset of that little bird, they might make an impact on their community’s social problems, working together with conviction. The psychologist Abraham Maslow theorized in the 1940s that humans’ most basic physiological needs such as food, water and shelter must be satisfied before they are motivated to satisfy higher-level needs, the highest level of which is called self-actualization (the fulfillment of one’s full potential as a person). If that theory holds true, food insecurity is no trifle matter. Indeed, it should be our collective responsibility to work toward making food security a basic human right for every person in the population, regardless of age. Had compassionate people and organizations not strived for that worthy goal in the past, some of us may not be here today.

Kevin Y. Kawamoto has been writing for The Hawai‘i Herald for more than three decades. He is a gerontological social work educator.


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