KAPA‘A — An unusual collaboration in which 1,600 meals a day are prepared and plated in an idled restaurant kitchen in Honolulu, rushed to the airport and then flown to Lihu‘e for distribution at 10 places scattered across the island has ended its first week, but not without controversy.
It may be the most unusual adaptation yet on Kaua‘i to the lockdown that has gripped the entire state and most of the rest of the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. The food is being distributed at 10 Kaua‘i pickup locations on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and delivered to individual recipients on Tuesdays and Thursdays, according to organizers.
It all requires an elaborate timing dance because, under state Department of Health rules, no more than four hours can elapse between when food is prepared and put on plates in a commercial kitchen and actually served to the people who will eat it.
Getting the process running resulted in a confrontation earlier in the week when a DOH inspector ruled that meals had been out of the O‘ahu kitchen too long and ordered a few dozen of them discarded.
On Friday, the health department and the Hanalei River Heritage Foundation, the Kaua‘i nonprofit that organized the flying meals program with its Honolulu originators, appeared to have patched up their differences. Dr. Bruce Anderson, DOH director, emailed Michael Sheehan, who heads the foundation, and told him: “Much better to try to work with the DOH folks on Kaua‘i than to fight them.
“They know you’re just trying to help and that you certainly don’t want to cause anyone to become ill from food poisoning. Hope you can together find a way to deliver all those meals safely. You and your team are providing a wonderful service to your community.”
The program began after the owners of Da Spot and Blue Water Shrinp &Seafood in Honolulu partnered with other O‘ahu leaders to form Malama Meals. The venture joins restaurants that have been forced to shut down by the COVID crisis, food trucks and Honolulu government agencies.
Before this week, Malama Meals had been distributing 3,200 meals a day exclusively on O‘ahu, at 37 locations. The organization, which launched March 21, has started a fundraising drive that hopes for $1 million in donations to underwrite the expanding meals program that now serves two islands.
Ahmad Ramadan, who owns Da Spot with his wife, organized the program. The Ramadans were joined by Steve Sombrero, a Honolulu real estate agent and owner of the Aloha Beer Co.
Ramadan said meal preparation begins early in the day in Honolulu, then rushes the meals bound for Kaua‘i, already plated and packed in insulated containers and cardboard boxes, to the airport in Honolulu, a 20-minute drive from the restaurant. There, the food is loaded onto a plane operated by Kamaka Air, a local cargo carrier, for the short flight to Lihu‘e.
At Lihu‘e Airport, a dozen volunteers driving pickup trucks and cars transfer the meals to their vehicles, then disperse to roadside pickup points in Anahola, Kapa‘a, Wailua, Hanama‘ulu, Lihu‘e, ‘Oma‘o, Kalaheo, Hanapepe, Waimea and Kekaha. Some meals are delivered to small groups of individuals living on the land or housed in vehicles.
The airplane lands in Lihu‘e about 2:30 p.m. and, by 4:30 p.m., all of the meals must be distributed.
“There’s a very increasing need for meal service and the government is not taking care of the people,” Ramadan said in a phone interview from Honolulu. “If something isn’t done, there could be people getting sick, theft and even rioting.”
The Kaua‘i distribution system must be handled with discretion, according to volunteer Rowena Pangan, who said the cooperative has had to find ways to get food to homeless people in places like Lydgate Park, but also to women who have been abused and are hiding from their boyfriends and spouses. Some recipients may also be eluding police.
“We’re not here to out them so they get arrested,” she said. “There are lots of valid reasons they don’t want to be found out.”
Sheehan said the difficult and pressured timing situation led to an incident earlier in the week in which a DOH inspector concluded that some of the meals had passed the four-hour limit on the time between serving and consumption. A small number were discarded.
Enraged, Sheehan emailed several legislators to protest. He and Anderson spoke by phone on Thursday, Sheehan said, and, by Friday afternoon, the incident appeared to have faded into the past after Malama Meals participants got better at dealing with time pressures on Kaua‘i.
In an email, Sheehan said “the politics surrounding providing food for needy folks is just appalling. How can there be such a failure of conscience over coordinating such a basic requirement like food?. I am truly saddened, but let’s try our best to keep the food flowing.”
It was not clear if Sheehan’s efforts were being actively coordinated with Kaua‘i organizations like The Salvation Army, but Sheehan said his objective was to add to the availability of safe food throughout the island.
“The kupuna in Waimea and Kekaha don’t understand throwing food away when they haven’t been out of their houses — if they have one — and are hungry with no food, no money and no car, if they had money,” Sheehan said. “The homeless camps we are serving meals to are extremely happy that someone seems to care about their needs.”
Allan Parachini is a Kilauea resident, furniture-maker, journalist and retired public relations executive who writes periodically for The Garden Island.