Japanese American journalists representing publications in three states — California (The Rafu Shimpo), Hawaii (Hawaii Herald), and Washington (The North American Post) — participated in the first-ever multiple-site collaboration designed to share and compare each community’s response to the challenges of COVID-19. This article from O’ahu is the third in this five-part series presented under the auspices of the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network.
By KRISTEN NEMOTO JAY
HONOLULU — When reports of COVID-19 first surfaced in Hawaii, and a stay-at-home order was in effect, small business owners rallied together to help feed Hawaii’s elderly population.
Even as their own future was uncertain, One Love Bakery and Café, located in Kailua, Oahu, continued to bake and cook meals to support their community. Every Friday, kitchen owner Shannon Walker provided hundreds of breakfasts, which were then distributed to seniors via drive-thru by the nonprofit Key Project family center in Kahaluu, Oahu.
“We believe in doing our part for those that need it most,” said Walker, who lost nearly 85 percent of her business overnight due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though her setbacks were and continue to be severe, Walker said her love for the community is what drives her to give back during this time of great need.
“We do it for our kupuna (grandparents or elderly); they are the backbone of our community,” she explains.
Arthur B. Machado, owner of Kailua’s nostalgic bowling alley Pali Lanes and a member of the Kahaluu board, understands the challenges that often accompany running a business, especially during the pandemic. Machado also believes that the “aloha spirit” runs deeply within Hawaii’s citizens. That spirit, he says, is evident in the number of donations and volunteers who help support programs like the one at Key Project.
“We’re all part of the same community, and we need each other. Everyone here in Hawaii is doing a great job,” said Machado, who was at the family center to pick up a meal for a homeless friend, who lives in a van in the Pali Lanes parking lot.
Machado adds, “It’s otherwise hard for us elderly. If you didn’t work for the government or the state, income is not easy to come by in Hawaii. Especially right now, people cannot survive.”
According to Feeding America, prior to the pandemic, more than 37 million people were considered as food insecure. Today, Feeding America projects more than 54 million people may experience food insecurity because of COVID-19. With national statistics of food insecurity on the rise, so will the numbers for Hawaii’s seniors.
Prior to the pandemic, Lanakila Meals on Wheels, a nonprofit organization that offers senior services, estimated 44,000, or one of six kupuna, faced hunger every day in Hawaii. Further alienating Hawaii’s seniors and putting them at great risk of food insecurity is Hawaii’s average meal cost of $3.39, 10 percent higher than the national average of $3.09. Adding to the snowball effect is Hawaii’s unemployment rate, 13.1 percent, its highest since mid-March.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first announced that elderly people were among those at highest risk for contracting COVID-19, Hawaii moved quickly to bring community support to its seniors.
Volunteers from newly developed organizations such as the Show Aloha Challenge, the Kūpuna Food Security Coalition, and Malama Meals helped deliver and coordinate pick-ups and drop-offs to kupuna homes on Oahu.
On Maui, food trucks partnered and coordinated with the Maui Food Technology Center to provide daily contactless delivery of prepared meals from June through August to kupuna and their caretakers. In March, more than 1,000 kupuna participated in the county’s Kupuna Kare of Farm Fare program on Kauai, created by community leaders whose mission is to deliver and make fresh produce accessible to seniors.
Even during this unprecedented time, Hawaii’s citizens, organizations, and businesses continue to give back. Restaurants have been at the forefront, demonstrating kindness and resiliency despite their own financial hardships.
David Hanus, general manager of Yanagi Sushi, said even though the restaurant experienced a major dip in sales since the middle of March, they didn’t hesitate to reach out because they knew other businesses and people were worse off than they were. Like One Love Bakery and Café, Yanagi Sushi continued to serve their meals and give back to the community.
“We’re happy to help during this time of need,” said Hanus, who helped coordinate Yanagi Sushi’s participation in the Show Aloha Challenge, a grassroots nonprofit organization developed during the COVID-19 crisis that raised over $1 million to help feed Hawaii’s seniors.
“Owners of Yanagi Sushi are around the age of a kupuna, so we all see ourselves in them,” said Hanus. “We have been hurt by the pandemic financially but have also been really lucky to stay afloat during this time. We are so thankful to the community for continuing to support us, and (we) want to give back any way that we can.”
Through the Show Aloha Challenge alone, over 20 small businesses, mostly restaurants, have donated their time and meals to help feed Hawaii’s kupuna. Mālama Meals, although no longer active, served over 350,000 meals to kupuna in need thanks to donations from local restaurants and small businesses.
Since mid-March, Hawaii Foodbank has distributed over two million pounds of food — a 60 percent increase in distribution compared to last year — and has reached out to 40,000 households and 150,000 people with help from the public and various small businesses and restaurants.
Jane Sawyer, district director for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Hawaii Office, said she’s “not surprised but amazed” at the level of compassion she’s seen among small businesses. Although she and her team braced for impact once news of the pandemic reached Hawaii, nothing could have prepared her or the state for the amount of irreversible damage that she’s seen unfold within the last few months.
Even with the heartaches of many business closures, Sawyer said it’s inspiring for her to witness Hawaii’s community come together and help each other through the act of giving.
“Because we’re on an island, I think there’s more of a sense of responsibility and love for one another, especially our kupuna,” notes Sawyer. “They are our aunties, uncles, grandparents, or someone who knows someone’s family member … I think that’s why there’s been such a tremendous outreach of generosity.”
Although the increase in community participation has helped feed and keep the majority of Hawaii’s kupuna from going hungry, Sawyer is worried that Hawaii’s citizens, organizations, and small businesses will soon run out of steam.
The recent Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) helped alleviate some of the financial burden for Hawaii’s 24,534 small businesses, but for most, it was a temporary fix.
“This pandemic is unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” says Sawyer. “There will be many businesses that just won’t make the numbers because the odds are stacked against them. Everything has to change and that includes how small businesses do business here in Hawaii in order to stay afloat.”
Tourism remains stagnant under a quarantine by Hawaii Gov. David Ige that blocks all incoming visitors to the islands, forcing small businesses and kupuna to rely on self-sustainable practices and consistent community support.
Sawyer believes the resiliency of Hawaii’s people and businesses will further allow them to redefine themselves and be more receptive to changes. “There is a lot of adversity right now, and I understand for many it’s hard to find a silver lining,” she said. “It will be a good time to envision the Hawaii we want to live in and the Hawaii we want to share with our families in the future.”
Although Hawaii’s socioeconomic future is unsure, the consensus has been to unite behind those in need no matter the setbacks and challenges. If the momentum of giving continues, Sawyer believes Hawaii’s outcome will embody the giving and sharing of the “aloha spirit.”
“Paradise has always come with a price, regardless if there was a pandemic threatening the islands or not,” Machado reminds. “The cost of living is high, and we’re living longer nowadays.” He feels it’s imperative for locals to continue to support each other.
“The people who are volunteering their time and (donating) money these past months. (It’s) been unreal. I’m very grateful to them.”
Chef Walker agrees. She hopes One Love Bakery and Café will be remembered for its great food but, more importantly, for its dedication of service to those in need in Hawaii’s community.
“Love is the foundation and strength behind what drives us,” said Walker. “We believe that love is the most powerful force in the universe, and with this love all is possible.”
Kristen Nemoto Jay is a freelance writer and editor, born and raised on the island of O’ahu. After she graduated with her master’s degree in journalism from DePaul University in 2013, she happily moved back home to O’ahu to work as a writer and editor for a travel magazine company. When she’s not writing, she enjoys teaching yoga and exchanging food recipes and dishes with family and friends.