KAPAA — A food pantry that has operated out of a building on the St. Catherine Church and school campus is closing after nearly a decade of service to the community.
“It is with a heavy heart that I must convey to you that the pantry is closing completely April 1st,” Mark Whitson wrote in a letter to The Garden Island. Whitson has supervised and coordinated the pantry’s operations since February 2010, when he and his wife started the outreach program.
Nine years ago, the operation wasn’t much to speak of.
“We had more volunteers than clients,” Whitson said during an interview in a now-empty room that was once stocked with hundreds of pounds of canned goods, dry foods and hygeine products that Whitten and his crew distributed throughout the Kapaa area.
Church administrators were almost ready to give up on the project, but Whitson just asked them to be patient. Eventually, word of the food pantry began to spread.
Until about a month ago, the St. Catherine Food Pantry was serving about 350 needy people a week, and that number often grew to around 500 toward the end of the month, according to Whitson.
“This has been kind of like my baby for the last nine years,” he said.
Last month, on an afternoon when children were preparing to leave St. Catherine School for the day, two men pulled into the parking lot and tried to force a woman into their car at gunpoint. The attempted abduction was unsuccessful and police apprehended both men soon after they fled the scene.
Nobody was hurt, but parents, parish and school administrators and police were understandably concerned. Following the incident in mid-February, the Kauai Police Department worked with the school to make recommendations on how to improve campus security and student safety, according to a county spokesperson.
One of KPD’s recommendations was to limit opportunities for outside individuals not associated with the school to come onto campus during school hours and activities. The food pantry was not connected in any way to the gunman, but the church — in consultation with the Catholic Diocese of Honolulu, the school and its parishioners — ultimately decided that the food pantry should not operate during school hours.
The food pantry, which had been distributing meals out of the church building every weekday from 4 to 5 p.m., could now not open its doors until 5:30 p.m. at the earliest.
Volunteers — a group primarily composed of senior citizens — balked at the change in hours. Saturdays don’t work because of scheduling conflicts with family events and funerals held at the church.
Whitson said he looked into renting another location but quickly realized that option would be cost-prohibitive. He said a different location would probably cost at least $3,000 a month to rent, “and we don’t spend that much on food!” The pantry had been operating with an all-volunteer staff, using food and goods donated mainly by the Hawaii Foodbank and local stores.
“We have zero overhead,” Whitson said.
When asked what will become of the hundreds of residents who have come to rely on the food pantry’s services, Whitson said he hopes they will be able to find help elsewhere.
There are two other food banks in the area. The Kapaa Missionary Church runs a food pantry on Saturdays, and Hale Ho‘omalu, a family service center, distributes free food on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons.
Whitson said the director of the Kapaa Missionary Church program told him his numbers have doubled since the St. Catherine Food Pantry shut down.
Earlier in the week, Whitson took the pantry’s last load of food down to a beach in Kapaa where he regularly delivers food and personal hygiene supplies to homeless people who live there.
“Some of the guys were saying, ‘Thank you. We’re so hungry,’” Whitson said. “And we weren’t just a pantry.”
A doctor and member of the congregation at St. Catherine Church would often go along with Whitson on his regular food runs to the beach, administering basic medical care to those who needed it, while Whitson handed out meals. Nurses would often volunteer to give flu and pneumonia vaccines to people who came to pick up food.
For some of its regulars, the food pantry was about more than just filling an empty stomach or picking up a stick of deodorant.
“Some of the elderly people come, partly for the food,” Whitson said, explaining many of his clients were senior citizens who, apart from their interactions at the pantry were otherwise socially cut off from the community.
“We treat everybody like family,” he said. “We try to.”
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.