Sunday, May 20, 2012

Groceries for Rural America

Alma Food Mart, Alma, KS
Beautiful rural America!  Farms and ranches stretch for miles, dotted with occasional small towns with tree-lined streets.  Well over 80% of the land in the US is considered rural, but only about 19.3% of our population lives there. 

Why are we talking about rural America on this blog about hunger?  Because one of the issues faced by rural communities is access to healthy, affordable food.  We had heard from many sources along our journey that small rural grocery stores have a very difficult time surviving, and when there is no grocery store in a small community, the whole area loses some of its vitality.  People then have to drive long distances to shop for food, which is a hardship for many, especially low-income and elderly people.

But the loss of a town’s local grocery store also means a loss of business for other small stores (people traveling for groceries will tend to shop for other items while they’re there), a decrease in property values, and a decrease in the health and well-being of town residents.   Grocery stores are an anchor for a community’s sustainability.

Jim Puff
by a display of local Alma cheese
We visited two small grocery stores in lovely little towns in northeast Kansas.  Let’s start there.

First is Alma (population 832), the county seat of Wabaunsee County (population 7,053). Alma is a little over a 30-minute drive to Manhattan or Topeka, KS, where some of its residents work. Other residents are retired or employed at the county courthouse or other small businesses in town.

The Alma Food Mart is the only full-service grocery store in the county.  It is owned by Jim Puff, whose family once farmed in this area.  Jim has a long career cutting meat and managing other grocery stores.  He bought the Alma Food Mart four years ago and operates it and its café, along with a restaurant and catering business elsewhere.  He employs about ten people, including the cook for the café. 

Alma Food Mart's
well-stocked fresh produce
The store is bright and clean and was stocked with an ample supply of meat, dairy (including locally produced Alma cheese), and excellent fresh produce.  When the recession hit, Jim shifted his shelf-stable items to a lower-cost brand and put in a “$1 aisle” to make things more affordable. 

Now on to the little city of Onaga (population 702), located in Pottawatomie County (population 21,604).  Pottawatomie county’s population is larger than Wabaunsee because it contains the towns of Wamego (pop. 4,224), St. Mary’s (pop 2,246), and a small part of Manhattan, KS, which is a little over an hour’s drive from Onaga.  

Onaga Country Market, Onaga, KS
Other small businesses in Onaga include a hospital, a trust company, a pharmacy, a hardware store, an auto repair shop, and an auto parts store.  The Pottawatomie county fairgrounds are also nearby.
The Onaga Country Market is brand new – it just opened December 1st, 2011, and it was featured in a story about rural food deserts on American Public Media’s “Marketplace.”  The previous store in town had burned down, and residents were being forced to drive long distances for their groceries.  For those who didn’t drive, the county had arranged for bus service to the nearest store.  
Pam Budenbender by Onaga
Food Market's fresh produce display

Finally, a new entrepreneur agreed to build a grocery store – Pam Budenbender, whose family owns a farm and other land near Onaga, had always wanted to own a grocery store.  She worked with town officials, a local banker, and many others to finance, design, build, and stock the Onaga Country Market.  There are about six full-time and eleven part-time employees, including Charlie, the expert local meat cutter.
Charlie, Onaga Food Market's meat cutter
On the surface, the Alma Food Mart and the Onaga Country Market appear to be successful small stores making a huge difference in their communities.  But in addition, we heard about many challenges they face.  For another perspective, we traveled to the Center for Engagement and Community Development (CECD) at Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS.  There we spoke with Dr. David Procter, Director. 

David Procter, Director
Center for Engagement and Community Development
Kansas State University
CECD was founded in 2006 to connect the interdisciplinary resources of the university with the needs and goals of Kansas.  One of the many programs run by CECD is the Rural Grocery Initiative.  Its funding comes from the state of Kansas, as well as a USDA Rural Business Opportunity grant and an Agriculture and Food Research Institute grant,  CECD was alarmed by the facts that at least 7 counties in Kansas have no grocery store, and of the 213 stores in existence in 2007, 82 have closed or experienced a change in ownership.  The Rural Grocery Initiative helps address the challenges faced by small-town grocery stores, shares best practices, and thereby increases the chances that these stores will remain viable and will provide healthy food to citizens in their rural areas.  CECD is sponsoring its third biannual Rural Grocery Summit, June 5-6, 2012.

Here are some of the challenges that David said were identified by participants in previous Rural Grocery Summits, along with what we heard from Jim, and Pam:

Competition with chain grocery stores:  Who hasn’t heard stories of “big box” retail causing small stores to close?  As Jim said, “We’re being eaten alive by the Walmarts today.”   He shared several stories of large stores with ample resources and marginally lower prices luring customers away from the little community stores.  People don’t realize what they’re losing by shopping at the big stores until their local store is forced to close.   Then whether they want to or not, everyone has to travel to shop.

Models of ownership:  One mistake communities sometimes make is to assume that a grocery store must be owned by an individual entrepreneur.  The stores we visited in Onaga and Alma are both privately owned and operated.  But CECD has identified examples and published case studies of four additional models of ownership that have been successful in keeping grocery stores in small towns:  Community owned store, cooperative store, non-profit store (perhaps with a broader mission of ensuring healthy food access), and grocery stores run by public schools that see their role broadly as community development.

Financing:  Financing is a serious issue for any small business, and grocery stores are no exception.  Both Pam and Jim related the hefty investments they and their families have made in their stores, as well as the varied financial strategies needed to establish and keep their businesses running.  Getting the Onaga Country Market built and furnished required a package of 5 different bank, town, county, state, and federal loans.  Jim said, “Banks don’t work with you like they used to,” so keeping the Alma Food Mart running has necessitated short-term notes instead of longer-term lines of credit.

On a more positive side, David mentioned that some rural towns may benefit from President Obama’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which is awarding grants for the construction of new grocery stores in urban & rural food deserts. 

High operating costs:   Operating costs, particularly for energy, can be very high, especially since many rural grocery stores are located in aging buildings.  Jim says his electric bill was nearly $4000 last month.  Unexpected repair costs can cause severe difficulties, such as last summer’s heat-wave related failure of the compressors that run the store’s coolers.

Minimum buying requirements:  Most grocery distribution companies require larger orders than small-town grocery stores can sell.  Both the Alma and Onaga stores are members of a distribution cooperative called Affiliated Food Midwest.  Affiliated brings together 2900 small stores to enable buying on a larger scale.  They deliver twice a week and also provide lots of assistance to help stores be successful.  But still, each store is required to purchase a certain amount each week (e.g., $9-10,000).  Any store that can’t move that amount must pay a 5% surcharge, quite a penalty for a store that’s struggling in difficult economic times.  Some small stores have pooled their orders or taken on ordering for local institutions like schools, nursing homes, or civic organizations to help reach their weekly quotas.

Labor issues:  Neither the Onaga Country Market nor the Alma Food Mart mentioned labor issues to us.  Both Pam and Jim said they employ highly qualified local people and a few high-school kids.  And Jim said that he puts in 110 hours a week and other family members also work in his store and catering business.  But David told us that many stores in small towns do have trouble recruiting reliable workers who will provide the kind of customer service so important to the success of small stores.  Some are turning to hiring older workers rather than high-school kids.

If a store falters, the labor issue of lost jobs is far greater than just that store, as other businesses in town suffer from the loss of customer traffic.

Excessive Regulations:  This issue concerns high taxes as well as all the health and other governmental regulations that seem more appropriate for much larger stores.  Small store owners have told David that it takes almost one full-time store employee to make sure they’re following these regulations.  It’s a burden, given their limited resources. 

Another example we heard from both Pam and Jim concerned the process to become qualified to accept Vision cards (Kansas’s name for SNAP benefits EBT card) and to accept vouchers for WIC.  Not only did the processes take a lot of paperwork and on-site inspections, but the approvals took a long time to come through.  Pam said, “We had customers calling, ‘Are you accepting the Vision card yet?’  We had to tell them,’We’re waiting.’  One woman came to the store the day we got approval and asked again, and when we said ‘Yes,’ she cried, she was so thrilled.  Lots of people don’t have transportation, so it was important to get that approval so she could shop locally.”

Community support:  Finally, for small grocery stores to survive, they need the support of the local community.  They need people buying groceries there and helping shape the store to meet their needs.  We heard several stories about communities that didn’t realize how important the store was until it was gone, and then working hard to find a way to bring a store back to their community.  But as Jim said, “People forget and you have to keep educating them.” 

Stores must also work hard to provide the products and customer service that will earn their loyalty.  Pam said that she talks to customers every time she’s in the store, asks them what else they’d like to see on the shelves, and then makes sure she stocks that item for them.

One thing that’s irksome to small grocery store owners is when people who shop out of town come into the store looking for donations.  As David said, “The same people who are buying their groceries in Manhattan or Topeka are coming to the grocery store to ask for support for baseball teams, youth groups, 4H groups.”  CECD has worked with the school of journalism at Kansas State to develop buy local campaigns reminding people of the importance of supporting local businesses.  “Yes, it may cost you a bit more, but there are bigger issues at play here.”

We loved our visits to the Onaga Country Market and the Alma Food Mart.  We wish them long lives in supportive communities.  

And now in our own communities – what can we all do to keep the stores that are important to our communities?   Shop there, give our feedback on what else we’d like to purchase there, and let them earn our loyalty.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Cooking Matters!

Yes, cooking does matter.

Anyone trying to eat nutritious meals on a budget will find it far easier if they know some basics of nutrition, how to shop for healthy food, and how to cook meals from scratch.  And yet, our experience is that many adults lack those skills.  Families eat away from home about half the time, and schools are less likely to offer courses that include nutrition and cooking.  Rates of obesity, diabetes, heart problems, and other diet-related conditions are rising dangerously.  Combine those factors with the difficult economic times and high rates of families experiencing food insecurity in this country and the result is that many children are not getting the nutritional foundation for good health as they grow up.

Megan Cazer, Program Associate
Cooking Matters Colorado
What can be done?  Cooking Matters tackles this problem by offering courses in cooking and nutrition to low-income adults and children across the country.  Cooking Matters is the service arm of Share Our Strength, a national non-profit organization that is working to end childhood hunger in the US through its “No Kid Hungry” campaign.

In addition to ensuring that children have enough to eat, it’s important that what they eat promotes good health.  Therefore, the goal of Cooking Matters is to, “empower families with the skills, knowledge, and confidence to prepare healthy and affordable meals.”

There are about 33 organizations throughout the US that provide Cooking Matters courses.  The largest is Cooking Matters Colorado, which, in 2010, taught 170 classes with a total of 2113 participants.

We visited and met with Megan Cazer, Program Associate for Cooking Matters in Denver, CO.  Megan has a master’s degree in Nutrition and a rich family tradition of cooking.  She works with agencies in Denver County to schedule Cooking Matters courses, and she and others in the office coordinate all the courses in Denver and surrounding counties.  Megan also teaches any of the courses for which there aren’t enough volunteer chefs or dieticians, coordinates all the volunteers for the courses in Denver, and oversees the dietitians who serve internships with Cooking Matters. 

Megan explained that Cooking Matters offers 6 different courses:
  • Cooking Matters for Adults, with optional supplements for parents of preschoolers and for people affected by diabetes
  • Cooking Matters for Families, designed for one child ages 8-12 and one parent
  • Cooking Matters for Kids
  • Cooking Matters for Teens
  • Cooking Matters for Childcare Professionals
  • Shopping Matters, a one-time grocery store tour
Each course includes its own curriculum and workbooks for each participant full of lesson materials, recipes, and quick tips.  Workbooks for the adult and family courses are available in Spanish and English.  All the volunteer chefs and nutritionists are trained in how to best deliver the curriculum, and the Cooking Matters website even has a few videos to help.

Each session of the 6-week courses lasts 2 hours.  Typically, half of the session focuses on cooking and the other half on nutrition.   The list of topics is long, including what healthy eating looks like, the different food groups, basic culinary skills, calorie levels, how to read nutrition labels, the value of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, how to reduce fat, how to stretch your food dollars, how to have a well-stocked pantry, etc.  All the recipes included in the workbook can be made on a SNAP (food stamps) budget.

Participants go home at the end of each of the first 5 classes with a bag full of the groceries needed to make the food items they practiced during the session a useful kitchen tool, such as a spatula, cutting board, or measuring cups.  After the last class, they go home with the workbook, a graduation certificate, and the knowledge enabling them to make more healthy, delicious, and affordable meals.

Each course is held at a host agency site, for example, schools, social service agencies, public housing, WIC offices, and Head Start centers.  The only requirements are that the site can recruit 12-15 course participants, that there is a room large enough to hold the class, and that there is a sink available for washing hands and produce.  Also, because most of the funding for Cooking Matters courses comes from SNAP-Ed (the educational grants part of the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), sites must serve low-income people.  For schools, 50% or more of students must qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches.  

Creating personal pizzas
What are the classes like?  We met Megan at the Sixth Street Elementary School cafeteria, where she was teaching the last session of Cooking Matters for Families from 4:00 – 6:00 PM.   When we arrived, we helped Megan and her volunteer assistant, Elsa Colón, prepare for class.  Megan had brought all the kitchen equipment and food, so all that was needed was to set out the cutting mats, tools, and food items needed to make individual pizzas and banana pudding.

The class had about 8 adult women and about 10 kids.  All members of the class were Spanish-speaking, so Yolanda (a school cafeteria worker who had organized the class), Elsa, and sometimes the children translated what Megan said to the mothers.

Pizza ready for the oven
As the class arrived, they first reviewed the previous lesson.  Had anyone made the broccoli soup?  No?  How about the fruit smoothies?  Yes.  Many had, with all sorts of different fruits.
Then the class washed hands and moved to the cooking stations.  Megan was great at keeping everyone, including the kids, busy and involved in the preparation.  They mixed pizza sauce, shredded cheese, sliced all manner of vegetables, and assembled it all on individual whole-wheat pita breads.  Megan had also supplied Feta cheese and turkey pepperoni.  Everyone was encouraged to assemble their own pizza, with only 2 rules – each must have at least one added vegetable and a maximum of 4 pepperoni slices.  When all were done, they went into the oven until the cheese melted.

Meanwhile two sets of kids were making banana pudding by putting 3 ripe bananas into zip-loc bags, mushing it with their hands until it had no lumps, then adding ½ cup yogurt, ½ cup applesauce, and a healthy dose of cinnamon. They then cut off the corner of the bag and piped the resulting pudding onto graham crackers.

Making banana pudding

The class ate the results and seemed delighted – we can vouch for the surprisingly yummy banana pudding!
Enjoying individual pizzas

Next it was time for a final bit of fun – the class played a “trivia” game based on the lessons of the previous 5 weeks. 

Reviewing with a trivia game
Then the final three events were the graduation ceremony (each participant received a certificate and each family received an oven mitt), a course evaluation, and a discussion about what each of the participants had gotten out of the course.  One said that she’d had a set of recipes that she cycled through, and now she was glad to have some new recipes to include.  Another said she was trying to include all the food groups in her family dinners.  Others said they looked at the package ingredients at the grocery store more.  They all agreed that they were trying to include more fruits and vegetables in their meals.

Since most members of Cooking Matters classes may be eligible for SNAP, we were very glad to see Cooking Matters’ SNAP Outreach Coordinator, Grey Gorman, come near the end of the class and offer his services to class participants.  We learned from Grey that Colorado had been one of the worst states in terms of the percent of those eligible who actually received SNAP (food stamp) benefits.  The reasons were many, including a very long and cumbersome application process, extremely long wait times, and many myths about the eligibility and implications of receiving SNAP.  So now, Cooking Matters and other agencies are working to turn that around and make sure that those eligible receive the food assistance to which they are entitled.

Overall, we were impressed by the enthusiasm of the mothers and kids, the relaxed confidence of their instructor Megan, and the useful, thorough materials in the Cooking Matters course workbook.  We’d like to see Cooking Matters offered all over the country.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Fostering Self-Reliance

Mel Gardner, Manager, Field Operations
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Facing Hunger in America has heard that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS Church, or, colloquially, the Mormon Church) has a unique way of aiding the needy and poor in their congregations.  So, we decided to visit the world headquarters of the LDS Church, in Salt Lake City, Utah, to find out what they do that’s so different.

There, we met Mel Gardner, Manager, Field Operations, Community Support Services for North America, in his office on Welfare Square.  He explained to us that there are three tenets of the Church that determine their actions toward people in need:
  • Care for the poor and needy
  • Foster self-reliance
  • Encourage service to others
Caring for those in need is a biblical mandate seen numerous places throughout both the old and new testaments. 
Fostering self-reliance is similar to the proverb, “If you give a person a fish, he’ll eat for a day, but if you teach him to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”  Helping a person find a job, teaching him the skills necessary for a career at which he can make enough money to support himself and his family, and helping him to manage what he has so it is sufficient are all skills that will foster independence and lead to an enhanced sense of self-worth.

Encouraging service to others allows people to give back, and is only possible when they are self-sufficient themselves.  But this is what allows the cycle to continue.

How does the LDS church put these principles into action?  Mel explained that when someone is in need, he or she goes to the Bishop of the local “ward” (congregation of about 500 people).  The Bishop is the local leader of the ward, a volunteer position.  One of his many duties as bishop is to help those in need.  The Bishop sits down with the person in need, finds out why they’re in need, and figures out what would help them.  The Bishop then asks that person what they’re willing to do in exchange for the aid they need, and decides what is a fair exchange.  The work required may be physical, spiritual or emotional. 

Bishops' Storehouse
For example, the Bishop may ask the person to do 10 hours of work at some task, in exchange for an order for 2 weeks’ worth of food, consisting of specific grocery items from the Bishops’ Storehouse.  Perhaps someone is in danger of having their utilities cut off.  The Bishop may write a check to the utility company, in exchange for the person in need fixing their neighbor’s porch.  If a person cannot physically work, perhaps he can read and analyze scriptures, instead.  Almost never will the Bishop give the person in need a direct payment of money.

Fostering self-reliance means that the Church does all in its power to help people become gainfully employed.  As Mel said, “You can’t be self-reliant if you can’t provide an income.” So, the Church runs 326 employment resource centers around the world, offering help to find jobs.   

There are numerous ways people give back.  Members of the LDS Church are asked to fast for two meals once per month, and the money they would have spent on food (or more) is given to the Church.  This fast offering supports all of the welfare services of the Church.  In addition, members volunteer many hours in all the welfare activities, from the farms to the processing facilities and storehouses.

Welfare Square, Salt Lake City, UT
We got to see the welfare system in action on Welfare Square, about a 1-square block area in Salt Lake City.   The main building is large, with part set up as a small supermarket, the Bishops’ Storehouse, except there are no cash registers.  Those with an order from their Bishop come here to receive food, and a volunteer helps them go through the aisles to pick up all the groceries on their order.  There are about 120 different items – not only canned items, but also frozen meat, refrigerated dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables, and a few other household items such as aluminum foil and diapers.  The large number of volunteer workers keep the area absolutely spotless, with every display of food full and neatly arranged.  

About 80% of the items in the Bishops’ Storehouse carry the Deseret brand name. (Deseret is a Book of Mormon word that means “honey bee.”)  These items are all produced in LDS-owned facilities, with mostly volunteer labor.  The Church owns ranches, farms, orchards, and various processing facilities that produce these goods.  The other items (mainly fresh produce and a few other items) are bought wholesale.

Volunteers slicing bread in the bakery
Behind Bishops’ Storehouse is a large warehouse, with 3-6 months of supplies and a bakery that supplies bread throughout the western US.  The bakery has four full-time employees, and the rest are volunteers.  Elsewhere in this building, there are offices and an area that transients such as the homeless and those just out of prison can go for help, whether they’re members of the LDS Church or not.  Those who interview the clients are former bishops who volunteer their time.  The clients are asked to volunteer in exchange for help, and given vouchers for food, clothing, household items, and perhaps a bus pass.  

We continued around Welfare Square, touring the other buildings – there’s a cannery that produces honey, salsa, jams, spaghetti sauce, and applesauce.  They make many other processed items as well, and there are other canneries in other parts of the country that make other processed foods.  The cannery also includes a home storage center, where members of the Church can come, purchase food items and cans, and seal them for their own long-term food supply.  There’s also a grain elevator with 12 silos full of wheat.

In a separate building is a Deseret Industries thrift store (one of 43 around the country, mostly in the west), similar to Goodwill Industries.  The goal is to train those who need additional skills so they can get a full-time job in the community within 1-1 ½ years.  Deseret Industries gives skills assessment, training, language skills, and job experience.  It also helps those sent here to determine what they’d like to do, and can work with the community college for additional training.  The thrift store allows those in the community to purchase affordable clothes or household items (including some furniture and beds made at Deseret Manufacturing). 

The last building in this complex is a dairy, where milk from the LDS-owned dairy farms is processed into pasteurized, homogenized milk of various grades, chocolate milk, cottage cheese, cheddar cheese, butter, non-fat milk powder, and sour cream.  Again, it is spotless, with several full-time employees to run the equipment, test the raw milk and the products, and measure the ingredients, but volunteers are used heavily to do such tasks as cutting and packaging the cheese, placing packages in cartons and then on pallets, and keeping the areas clean. 

Betsy and Carolyn packing tubs of butter
We spent a few hours helping out in the cold (36-degrees F) warehouse (wearing 2 layers of jackets supplied to volunteers).  We packed 18 1-lb tubs of Deseret butter into each carton and neatly stacked 65 cartons onto each pallet.  In the two hours we worked, we packaged over 5,000 pounds of butter!

The products manufactured in these facilities (and the other, similar facilities throughout the country) are used to assist members of the LDS church who need the food, and others recommended by the Bishop.  But there is typically excess.  What happens with the excess?  The LDS Church partners with other organizations whose welfare missions are similar (food banks, homeless shelters, refugee agencies, half-way houses for those just released from prison, for example).  These organizations may be given supplies from the Bishops’ Storehouse and their clients may be given vouchers for clothing and household items from Deseret Industries.

In addition, the LDS processing facilities around the country are often contracted to supply product to other organizations.  The peanut butter at your local food pantry?  It may have been manufactured in the LDS peanut processing facility in Houston.  Or the applesauce?  Perhaps manufactured in the cannery we saw in Salt Lake City.

It’s obvious that the philosophy of working for what you’re given, and volunteering simply because it’s expected as part of your faith, has led to an abundant supply of food in extremely productive, orderly, and well-maintained facilities.

What would happen if your local food pantry asked each person who received food to spend a few hours volunteering in exchange?  Would the shelves be restocked more quickly?  Would the food donations to the food bank be sorted faster?  Could there be more fresh produce from a garden?  Would the clients feel better about receiving the food?  What else could happen?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Facing Hunger in Hawaii

Waikiki Beach
One of the most memorable scenes from our visit to Honolulu, Hawaii is this:  Stand on the beach across the street from Kapiolani Park.  Look west – you see an iconic view of paradise – Deep blue Pacific Ocean, the sands of Waikiki Beach, opulent resort hotels, and the skyline of modern Honolulu.   Now turn around to the park and there you see a picnic table covered with a bright flowered tablecloth and a few people laying out food for a small gathering of … homeless folks.

Yes.  Hawaii has its share of people living in poverty (10.4%) and people experiencing food insecurity (14%).  Rates of homelessness are approximately twice the national average, ranking Hawaii as the state with the 3rd highest rate of homelessness.  In 2011, approximately 4,234 homeless people were counted on the island of Oahu alone; 1,322 of them were unsheltered.  Other estimates we heard during our visit were much higher. 

Ben talking with Betsy
One factor leading to high homelessness is the extremely high cost of living in Hawaii. In Honolulu, for example, rents are more than double the national average, making it more expensive to live here than anywhere else in the US except New York City.

How did we come to be attending a “homeless feed” in Honolulu?  We had worked earlier at the Hawaii Foodbank with fellow volunteer, Ben Timmerman, who happens to be homeless.  He graciously invited us to join him.  Over the course of the few days we spent in Hawaii, we were privileged to get to know Ben and also to talk with Klara and others about their lives on the street in Honolulu.  We heard about the enormous difficulties of being homeless, for example:
  • finding a safe place to sleep (and keeping it to yourself so others or the police don’t interfere).
  • being assaulted, insulted, mistrusted, discriminated against, and treated unfairly in many ways.  For example, we heard a personal story of waking up in the night to someone trying to burn him.
  • having your few belongings stolen or scattered in different locations where friends are willing to store them. 
  • being stereotyped as dirty, criminal, or dangerous (some may be, but the people we met were none of these).
  • being stereotyped as mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol (again, some may be, but the people we met were neither of these, though they did bear the scars of past wrongs either to them or by them).
Klara talking with Carolyn
We heard about long, slow slides into homelessness after years and years of working at jobs such as waiter, bus driver, taxi driver, and substitute teacher.  We also heard about causes such as drug abuse, prison, domestic abuse, job loss, inability to pay escalating rent, and mistreatment by agencies such as the VA.  We heard about benefits such as SSI and SNAP that helped for part of the month, but were insufficient to cover the rent for even a single room.  We heard frustration, anger, pain, loneliness, and deep longing for understanding, justice, and basic human touch. 

The people we met were certainly not lazy. They were busy with all the processes they had to go through for benefit or job applications, all the lines they had to stand in for meals or housing, and all the moving around they needed to do – all while trying to find a way to get into their own housing.  Some were employed or held volunteer jobs at the programs we visited.  Some attended church and sang in the choir.  None just sat around.

In talking with these homeless folks, we also heard intelligence, wit, humor, love of music, political opinion, great math skills, and appreciation of the beauty and history around them.  We heard about normal childhoods and continuing close family ties.  We heard courtesy and caring and love.  We heard dreams for the future from “having a home of my own” to “being able to complete my college degree in computer science.”  In short, we heard things you might hear from any friend.
First United Methodist Church of Honolulu
Rev. Linita Moa and Rev. Amy Wake

To learn more about how hungry and homeless folks are being helped in Hawaii, we visited the First United Methodist Church of Honolulu

This congregation began in 1855, when Hawaii was still a monarchy and the church’s presence required a Royal Charter from King Kamehameha IV.  Today about 50% of the congregation is part of an immigrant community from Tonga, a Pacific island nation near Fiji.

Co-pastors Rev. Amy Wake and Rev. Linita Moa conduct services in both English and Tongan in a large sanctuary open on two sides to the weather and sounds of Hawaii, a symbol that “the world is our parish.”   We were warmly welcomed and even participated in a Tongan worship service.
Cece preparing for Pancakes and Praise
Every Sunday at 8:00 AM, First UMC also offers a devotional service called “Pancakes and Praise,” a tradition begun by Utu Langi as part of his work with hungry people in Honolulu.  Many homeless people come to participate in the praise service and to enjoy the pancakes afterward.  We worked with Samiana Langi, Cece, and other volunteers to serve coffee, pancakes, and bacon to about 100 people, and that provided us with a great chance to talk with some of the people who attended.

First UMC has a long history of social services to the community, including serving meals to soldiers during WWII and starting a counseling center, various schools, and senior housing and meals programs. 

The two programs we specifically wanted to learn about are H-5 (which stands for “Hawaii Helping the Hungry Have Hope”) and First UMC Foodbank. These two programs provide some really interesting comparisons.  They’re alike in that each was born at the church under the strong visionary leadership of a member of the congregation.  Each is tuned to serve the needs of hungry and homeless Hawaiians with care and compassion.  And each includes some of the program participants in the ranks of their employees and volunteers.  But the contrasts are many. 

First UMC Hawaii Foodbank volunteer Dick Chadwick
First the foodbank.  The First United Methodist Church Honolulu Foodbank  (which in most parts of the country would be called a “food pantry”) started as a tiny closet serving a few families each week.  But that was before about 1980, when the need started growing and Lissi Chadwick took it over.  Lissi was not in town when we visited, so we learned about the foodbank from another knowledgeable volunteer, Lissi’s husband, Dick Chadwick, who is also Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii.

Over the years, the foodbank has steadily grown to serve more people, to occupy a larger space in the church building, and to fine-tune its operations to best meet the needs of hungry Hawaiians.  It is now open two hours a day, 5 days a week.  After being in operation for over 30 years, its database contains names of over 7200 households, between 400 and 500 of which receive groceries in any given month. Households (here called “guests”) are only allowed to come once every 3 months because the need was outstripping the foodbank’s ability to provide food, space, and volunteers.  Guests are given a list of other nearby pantries and feeding programs in case they need additional resources. 
Vera explaining the choice system at First UMC Hawaii Foodbank

The First UMC foodbank  uses a hybrid model for supplying food (partly pre-packed and partly choice).  Volunteers prepare bags of food tailored to families, single folks, or those without cooking facilities.  Guests can then choose additional items according to their tastes.

We went with Dick Chadwick & Ben Timmerman on their weekly trip to the Hawaii Foodbank.  We sorted through bins and shelves of donated food to find items that Lissi needed to restock the shelves, giving preference to healthy items that Dick and Ben knew their guests liked.  Before loading the groceries into the cars, we weighed the food, so the church could pay the $.18/pound handling fee. 

We returned to the church with two cars FULL of food.  Ben stored some of the shelf-stable items in a small closet in the basement, while the perishable foods and other shelf-stable items we loaded onto carts and hauled in a tiny elevator up to the second floor foodbank.  There, we added the new groceries to the stock and observed the foodbank in operation. 

This food pantry is entirely run by about 18 volunteers, who Lissi seems to keep very well motivated and organized.  Careful and complete instructions on how to fill the bags of groceries were posted.  We saw volunteers stocking shelves, filling bags for guests, and dividing up fresh broccoli and other products into smaller containers.  A volunteer receptionist took registrations, handed out bags of food, and helped guests choose their extra items. The guests seemed very grateful for the food assistance, especially the little boy whose mother assigned him the job of carrying home the box of cereal for the next morning’s breakfast.
H-5's Utu and Samiana Langi

Hawaii Helping the Hungry Have Hope is another program bearing the hallmarks of a strong leader and a faithful mission to the hungry of Honolulu.  H-5, and its Executive Director Utu Langi, are a story of transformation.

If you met Utu teaching Sunday School at First UMC Honolulu or offering devotions at Pancakes and Praise, you’d think that this is one dedicated and caring Christian.  If you met Utu and his wife Samiana (H-5 Programs Coordinator) at the office, you’d find them to be passionate advocates for Hawaii’s hungry and homeless.  But you might not guess that Utu’s younger life was very different. 

After growing up in Tonga, Utu moved to San Francisco and then Hawaii, spent time on the street and in jail, got involved in dealing drugs, and was arrested.  Facing a 45-year prison sentence that was thrown out on a technicality, Utu decided to turn his life around.  He went to school and became a carpenter.  One night in 1997 on his way home from work, he happened to see a man sleeping on a bench.  He stopped to cover him with the blanket he had in the back of his truck.  Thus started his ministry to the homeless. 

Since then, H-5 has evolved through many stages as Utu has designed more and better ways of being responsive to the needs of the homeless.  At first it was more blankets donated by people in the church, then it was providing food to thousands of homeless people in parks all over the island of Oahu.  Then, when the people living in one of the parks in Honolulu faced eviction with no other place to go, he stood by them as they marched to Honolulu Hale, the seat of both the city and county governments.  That activism eventually led the state to open a new homeless shelter called Next Step in 2006.  Utu and H-5 (by now a separate 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization) were hired to manage it. 

Accommodations in an Evans Project shelter
But H-5 continues to evolve.  They no longer provide blankets and food to homeless people in the parks, having come to believe that it is more helpful to get people into shelters where they can receive more of the services they need.  And they no longer manage the Next Step shelter, which transitioned in 2011 to being managed by the Waikiki Health Center.

So what are H-5 and its dedicated staff of about a dozen people doing now?  In addition to a full set of referral services and assisting clients with the paperwork involved in getting benefits, they’re providing ever more innovative services like the Evening Angels Bus Shelter (shortened to the “Evans Project”). 

H-5 now believes that small shelters are healthier and more adapted to the needs of homeless people, so Utu got tour companies to donate retired busses, which he then had outfitted as shelters.  One bus (with seats removed) can easily sleep 8 single homeless people, single mothers and children, or families, with storage for personal belongings in the locked luggage compartments below.  The current busses are parked in a lot near the Next Step shelter, where residents can go for showers, laundry, and dinners.  Also on the lot are portable rest rooms and two canopies covering cooking and lounging areas.  Currently 19 adults and 5 children live at the Evans Project , and in the short (under 2 years) history of the project about 200 people have benefited from shelter there.  Residents seem to enjoy living there, and one couple even named their baby Evans!   
Utu with baby Evans and her mom

Shelter residents often must cope with a lack of transportation, an issue that is particularly acute for residents at the shelters located in the Kalaeloa area (site of a former Naval Air Station west of Honolulu).  H-5 assists by operating a shuttle bus service from the shelters to the main city of Kapolei.

But Utu is not done with just providing shelter and transportation.  In order to break the cycle of homelessness, he’s begun a program called H.O.P.E., which stands for “Hands-On Program & Education.” H.O.P.E. offers workshops to residents of Evans Project and contracts with parks and other organizations to pick up trash and provide janitorial services, thus providing jobs to shelter residents.  We heard about even more ideas for services that the shelter residents could provide, as well as possible start-up businesses.  

Utu continues his advocacy on behalf of Hawaii’s homeless, and his quick wit and heart-felt experience make him tough to counter.  He told us a story that the Board of Health once wanted to shut down one of his homeless feeding programs “in order to protect their health.”  Utu said, “Every day I see people feeding themselves from dumpsters.  I don’t see you telling them it’s not good for them.”  Or when some church members were unhappy about homeless folks at the church and proposed a rule that there could be no sleeping on church property, he replied, “Have you ever looked around during a sermon?” 

The First UMC Foodbank and H-5 are very different programs in history, style, and services.  Nevertheless, what we find important and inspiring is how well each is tuned to best meet the needs they see.  Whether they continue on for 30+ years of growth and fine-tuning or they change more radically to attack problems closer and closer to their root causes, programs like these, together with their donors, volunteers, employees, and leaders, play vital roles in addressing the problem of hunger in America.