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DOH targets Malama Meals

LIHU‘E —The state Department of Health on Monday issued a cease-and-desist order shutting down a program that flew hot, prepared meals from Honolulu to Kaua‘i, concluding that the organization violated six food safety standards.

The action followed orders issued Friday and Monday that required meals that had allegedly been prepared in violation of the safety standards to be discarded. On Friday, the meals had already been delivered to Kaua‘i. On Monday, the plane carrying the meals was forced to turn back after takeoff for the same reasons.

The health department order was the latest development in the controversial program, which was launched by the Hanalei River Heritage Foundation, headed by Hanalei property owner Michael Sheehan.

There had been previous skirmishes between a health department inspector and the meals program over temperature controls to prevent the food from spoiling during the time between when it was prepared in Honolulu and distributed to recipients on Kaua‘i.

“Without proper controls, the risk of an outbreak of food illness is high and could have a devastating impact, especially on those who are elderly and have underlying conditions,” said Peter Oshiro, head of the health department’s food safety branch in Honolulu.

The action was taken, Oshiro said, after an inspection on Friday at kitchens used by Malama Meals, the Honolulu organization preparing the food. The department contended that Malama Meals personnel failed to monitor cooking temperatures, were not washing their hands properly and that unclean items were found stored in the handwashing sink.

Sheehan confirmed existence of the health department order. He said his organization was pursuing a proposal to the Salvation Army to use commercial kitchens at the army’s Hanapepe and Lihu‘e locations. However, Major Jeff Martin, the Salvation Army’s divisional leader in Honolulu, said the agency was awaiting a formal submission.

“I think that perhaps they’re being a little overzealous,” Sheehan said of the health department. “They have rules. They’re not laws. We intend to sort out whatever the regulatory issues are and continue. People are trying to knock these free meals down.”

Health department rules require that no more than four hours elapse between the time a meal is prepared and the time it reaches the people who will eat it. Sheehan acknowledged that his program had experienced problems in distribution.

“The easiest way is to make them on Kaua‘i,” he said. Existence of the program was first reported in The Garden Island on May 2. It was criticized for sourcing all of its produce and other ingredients on O‘ahu at the expense of farmers and producers on Kaua‘i and for the time lag introduced by preparing the food in Honolulu.

The distribution process required transporting the finished meals from the kitchen in which they were prepared on O‘ahu and sending them to the airport there to be loaded on a plane, which then flew to Kaua‘i. At the Lihu‘e airport, the meals were then distributed among a number of volunteer drivers who took them to distribution sites.

Martin said any relationship between the Salvation Army and Sheehan’s program would require a formal proposal and a contract. In email correspondence sent to Sheehan, the Salvation Army’s Kaua‘i advisory board chair, Sherri Holcomb, emphasized strict standards to which the group’s kitchens are held.

A county spokesperson said she was not familiar with the Malama Meals program and that it was not part of Kaua‘i County’s overall plan to deal with food shortage issues caused by the COVID-19 emergency. Several organizations, including the Kaua‘i Police Department, have sponsored meal distribution programs.

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