Lee Cataluna: Hunger And Need Winds Through An Affluent Neighborhood

“I’ve seen people hold on to frozen chicken breasts and cry.”

Margaret Teng and her team from King’s Chapel in Niu Valley run a food distribution program that has grown from 70 families coming to the church parking to get a free bag of groceries to nearly 500 cars lined up and waiting for food each time. The queue of cars stretches for nearly a mile along Halemaumau Street, a tree-lined drive through an East Honolulu neighborhood where three-bedroom homes sell for over a million dollars.

Though beaches and some businesses have reopened, the need is still so great.

“At first, when things were temporarily shut down in April, people were coming for food just to get by during the lockdown. But now, the reality is that some businesses are just never going to open again,” Teng said. “I don’t think the need is going to decrease. It’s going to get worse.”

Volunteers put free groceries into a car in the parking lot fronting King’s Chapel in Niu Valley.

Courtesy: King’s Chapel

King’s Chapel ran a smaller outreach program in partnership with Hawaii Foodbank for the last 10 years, distributing free groceries once a month. When the pandemic hit and so many people became unemployed, Teng and her team decided they could do more.

At first, it was rough.

“We were exhausted. We didn’t have a system. We were just trying,” Teng said. “How do you know how many food boxes is enough when you don’t know how much you’re going to need?”

Over time, their organization has gotten better, and bigger. About 100 volunteers from the community — people who passed by, saw what was happening and wanted to help — have joined church members to provide manpower for the operation.

Teng, a minister and director of community teams at the church, has figured out better procedures. For example, instead of passing the box of groceries through the car window, now each food box is placed in the trunk. And Teng has become adept at operating a pallet jack.

“That’s the thing you see in Costco to lift the pallets,” she said. “I got good at it. We have volunteers who are moms who have been home with their kids for months. They come to help and I notice them watching me work the pallet jack, so I go, ‘Do you want to learn how to use this thing?’ and they say, ‘Yeah!’ They’re so excited to be out of the house and doing something active.”

The food comes from Hawaii Foodbank, either as part of its CARES act food program, or purchased by the church on its own Foodbank account.

“When you load groceries into someone’s nice car and you see them cry, it really changes your perspective.” — Margaret Teng, King’s Chapel

The church group never knows what they’re going to get until the truck gets there. The Foodbank gets donations of overages from restaurants, grocery stores, farms, even Hawaiian Airlines.

“The truck arrives and it’s like, ‘Surprise!’ We don’t know if what we’re getting will need to be refrigerated,” Teng said.

The most important thing is food safety and COVID protocols, which means all volunteers have to be screened, wear masks, closed-toe shoes and gloves that are changed regularly.

The other big concern is that long line of cars through the neighborhood. Residents have called the police when cars are blocking their driveway, so now there’s a team of volunteers that walk the length of Halemaumau trying to make sure neighbors can get into and out of their homes during the two-hour distribution window that sometimes goes longer if there are more people in line. There are also people who come on the bus because they don’t have cars. They stand in line, get their food and get back on the bus.

The church asks for ID to keep track of how many families they’re serving, but they don’t ask for proof of economic hardship. According to Foodbank, nearly a quarter of a million Hawaii residents are currently struggling with hunger. Over 8,000 individual families have come to the Foodbank for food in the last six months. Teng tries to put enough into each box or bag with the assumption that it will be the only food the family will get all week.

There are some nice cars in that line for free food; some SUVs, Audis, a Mercedes.

“When you load groceries into someone’s nice car and you see them cry, it really changes your perspective,” Teng said. “Most of the tears are coming from shame. There are people who won’t even look up when they show their ID. They keep their head down. It’s worse when there are children in the car.”

When the church is distributing groceries through its own account, it offers prayer.

“We ask, ‘Would you like a prayer?’ and offer it as an option. So many people say, ‘Yes please.’ We pray for the health of their family and for opportunity and for hope. And we see the sunglasses go on and people start bawling. People were so dry on hope.”

Hundreds of people have flocked to the affluent neighborhood of Niu Valley and King’s Chapel to pick up much-needed food. Volunteers say it break their hearts to see the overwhelming need.

Courtesy: King’s Chapel

The schedule for food distribution is changing in October to better coordinate with other food distribution efforts in the area. Meanwhile, Teng says she has neglected fundraising efforts and needs to figure out how to get a commercial fridge and freezer to keep the food safe. “Right now, we’re using donated fridges, and I’ve had to tape the door closed to keep the dairy products cold.”

Most of the people picking up food come from the urban Honolulu area through Waimanalo, though some have come from as far as from the North Shore. Volunteers have watched as children in the cars tear open the bags to get to boxes of cereal. They start eating before the car even leaves the parking lot.

“My prayer every day we do this is, ‘God, please multiply this, like the loaves and the fishes.’ ” Teng said. “When you see the children and they’re hungry, that hurts the most.”

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