By CAROLYN LUCAS-ZENK
Stephens Media Hawaii
During the past four years, the Ocean View Food Pantry has provided food to those in need the last Tuesday of every month at the Ocean View Community Association’s community center.
Then last month, it didn’t. The organizers decided to retire.
Residents found the decision understandable but concerning, especially for those who came to rely upon the service for emergency provisions. The operation had helped between 140 and 180 area families cope with food insecurity — trouble providing adequate food for one or more household members — each month.
Questions arose about when the pantry would reopen and how residents struggling with hunger would make do, said Ocean View resident and Hawaiian quilt maker Ric Stark.
The day Stark and Judith Samuel found out about the pantry closing, the friends knew they couldn’t let it fall by the wayside.
Samuel helps run The Food Basket’s Senior Nutrition Program, which provides seniors with fresh produce and food. She knew how beneficial the pantry was because she used it. Like many seniors living on limited incomes, Samuel does not always have enough to buy groceries, especially after paying bills and other expenses.
“The pantry is so helpful for so many people in Ocean View,” she said. “I couldn’t see it disappearing.”
Without hesitation, Stark vowed to help.
“I live in this community, and I see how some people are living,” he said. “The pantry is one of the most important services we have in our rural, remote community. It makes an immediate impact, including whether one gets to eat tonight or not.”
Together, Stark said they formed Ka‘u Food Pantry with retired Episcopal priest Dallas Decker and Ocean View resident Allan Thimble. No one gets paid. This is an all-volunteer organization, he added.
The Ocean View Community Association has agreed to umbrella the pantry while it goes through the arduous process of applying for its 501(c)(3) status. Because the association is a nonprofit, the Ka‘u Food Pantry is able to be one of The Food Basket’s partner agencies, which distribute food directly to community members through various programs.
The Food Basket is an islandwide supplemental food network that collects and distributes nutritious, high-quality food to low-income households, the working poor, those with disabilities, the ill, seniors, children, and other vulnerable populations. It is Hawaii Island’s only food bank.
Gil Robinson, Ocean View Community Association president, said there’s been a food pantry in the community for at least eight years and estimated the demand for food assistance in Ocean View has doubled during that time. He said the call for help is continuous, especially with the high unemployment rate. Robinson said he admires how the community has rallied together to offer this service and hopes the recipients feel like the community cares and is committed to fighting hunger.
The Ka‘u Food Pantry was able to offer assistance again Tuesday, with help from the Ocean View Community Association, The Food Basket, local churches, donors and volunteers, Stark said.
The atmosphere inside the community center on Leilani Circle was a mixture of relief, gladness, appreciation and gratitude. Nearly 300 people registered and picked up their portion of the roughly 4,129 pounds of food.
“There’s so much joy and positivity,” Stark said.
For some, the pantry was more than a place to get groceries for meals; it was also a place to catch up with friends or neighbors.
Ocean View resident Heidi Walters called the pantry “a community gathering place” and “critical service,” both of which she appreciates as a recipient and volunteer. She said the pantry is a way to support her neighbors who are struggling with care and compassion. Walters came Tuesday because she was totally out of food, but also wanted to give back.
Ocean View resident Craig Conklin said the pantry is “fantastic” because “it provides the needed food sustenance” as people fall into economic hardship, are in transition, or when their benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps, don’t last the whole month. Conklin said he’s not alone in having redeemed most of his SNAP benefits by the third week of the month and turning to programs like the pantries for assistance.
Conklin said he worked his entire life until back and shoulder problems prevented him for doing so. He’s been on disability for about six years. Conklin admits he had to swallow his pride when first coming to the pantry. With no regrets or shame, he described the pantry as “a blessing.” He added, “It’s a lifesaver for people of all walks of life, ages and attitudes.”
Several pantry users spoke about how transportation inequities or limitations exacerbate their food access problems. Those without vehicles explained how they have to hitch rides with friends, relatives and strangers or patch together multiple bus routes to shop for groceries or go to The Food Basket’s Kona and Hilo warehouses. Having a food pantry in Ocean View makes a tremendous difference, they said.
About 90 percent of the food distributed came from The Food Basket. This food comes from retailers, wholesalers, distributors, farmers, residents and donors. Some are discarding goods that are close to their expiration date, unmarketable, mislabeled or “aesthetically displeasing” — such as dented cans or those with torn labels. The remaining 10 percent of food was either purchased through contributions to the pantry or donated by Ocean View residents, churches and businesses, Stark said.
To qualify to receive food from the pantry, applicants must fill out an application for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, show photo identification, and meet income eligibility criteria — the maximum annual income for a single person is $11,270, while a family of four is $23,000. Samuel and Stark said they do not turn anyone away who asks for help.
Donations are critical to the ongoing success of this pantry. All funds received go directly to purchasing food. Checks may be sent to Ka‘u Food Pantry, P.O. Box 7105, Ocean View, HI 96737. Volunteers are also welcome.
For more information or to get involved, call Samuel at 989-4074 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Email Carolyn Lucas-Zenk at email@example.com.