Over 50 Years of Caring for Kūpuna
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
In 1971 a modest little lunch wagon appeared out of nowhere in ‘A‘ala Park. Sponsored by the Honolulu Nutrition Program, it began serving well-balanced, delicious and healthy lunches to Kalihi senior citizens at little cost. Over time, the lunch wagon became a gathering place for people to socialize, as well as a beacon of hope for many who were seeking shelter from the storms of growing old. Today, that simple lunch wagon has grown into a moveable feast that delivers over 365,000 meals every year to over 2,200 Hawai‘i senior citizens and individuals with disabilities.
Now known as Lanakila Meals on Wheels, the program is just one branch of Lanakila Pacific, a remarkable nonprofit organization reaching thousands of our relatives, friends and neighbors across O‘ahu. Founded in 1939, by special-education teacher Violet Kam, Lanakila Pacific first began helping people who were recovering from the ravages of tuberculosis. Over the past 84 years, its services have grown into a giving tree of programs manned by a tight-knit family of volunteers and supporters that impacts the lives of the lonely, the abandoned and the disenfranchised.
While our state is marketed around the world as a veritable garden of plenty, the reality for many of our elderly is much more grim. One in six of our kūpuna go hungry everyday, and the numbers are only rising every year as our population ages rapidly. Today, the average LMOW client is female, 85 years old, and living on less than $1,000 a month. “The senior population faces a lot of challenges. They are often misunderstood and seen as a monolith,” says James Li, the LMOW program manager. “But they represent people of all different ages who come from diverse traditions, and they hold a wide range of values and priorities.”
While food challenges for our elderly have been a long running and complicated problem for decades, LMOW’s strategy is built on the simple, direct, grassroots approach that first fueled that humble little lunch wagon so many years ago. Hundreds of meals are prepared daily at Lanakila Pacific’s industrial kitchen on Bachelot Street in Liliha. The kitchen serves a dual purpose as a training center for individuals with disabilities who gain invaluable work experience and real life employable skills as they help cook and package the food. The lunches and dinners are then picked up by a caravan of staff and volunteers, and delivered to community centers and the front doors of kūpuna all over the island.
To be eligible, seniors need only be 60 years or older to participate. “Kūpuna resist signing up for our program because they think they are taking a handout from the government. So even though they have actual needs they often choose not to participate,” says Li. “Consequently, we have to explain that these are their tax dollars at work and they are not taking money away from needier people.” According to Li, it is not enough to meet only the dietary and nutritional needs of the elderly. LMOW also provides exercise classes, social opportunities and counseling services that help seniors navigate a challenging world that can sometimes overwhelm them. “Perhaps the most important part of the service we are providing is human contact,” says Li. “As we age it is easy to become more isolated and disconnected to the world around us. In the end our staff and volunteers deliver much more than food.”
Today, LMOW clients are also being offered an innovative fresh produce program called “The Green Bag.” During the darkest months of the COVID-19 pandemic, local farmers were unable to sell their harvest because restaurants were closing. Seniors were also losing access to good food because farmers’ markets were disappearing. Facing this perfect storm of troubles, LMOW saw a rare opportunity to help the broader community and worked with the Hawai‘i Farm Bureau to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to seniors purchased strictly from local Hawai‘i growers. “The food is packaged in 3 to 4 pound bags and we choose whatever is reasonably available,” says Li. “We also try to select things that are easy to prepare and cook.“ With items like papaya, mango, lychee, avocado, choi sum, bok choy, zucchini and Okinawan sweet potatoes on the list, it is easy to understand why the popularity of the program has grown even though COVID-19 restrictions have diminished.
“When I first began this work in 2009 it started off as just a job. But then the more I came to know the people that we’re serving, it has become my passion,” concludes Li. “As I grow older the work becomes closer and closer to my heart. These are not strangers that can be dismissed and forgotten easily. They are our family.”
Alan Suemori has taught English and history at ‘Iolani School for thirty years. He is the co-author of “Nana I Na Loea Hula,” an oral history of traditional hula resources in Hawai‘i, and the recently published children’s book, “Leilani: Blessed and Grateful.”