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Wai’anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center Focuses On Top Need: Food

The Wai‘anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center (WCCHC) has five clinical sites on the west side of O'ahu. They provide services to people living with some of the lowest income levels and highest rates of unemployment in the state.";

Tomorrow, 1,500 families will eat well after the Wai’anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center’s food box giveaway. Since the Covid-19 crisis hit, the center has been working overtime to make sure keiki, kupuna, and other vulnerable members in their large community are not forgotten. Transportation, isolation, and poverty are among  the barriers faced by residents of O’ahu’s leeward coast.


Credit WCCHC
WCCHC has distributed over 250 tons of food since March. They offer 1300 keiki meals, 200 Kupuna meals and 300 adult meals daily. That's 1800 meals a day, 5 days a week.

Recent food distributions have drawn thousands to Aloha Stadium and Central O'ahu. But many families and individuals are still going hungry.


"The reality in Wai'anae is that not everyone has a car, not everyone can get to town, the playing field is not even. There's way more barriers in place for people to be able to access food.”


Alicia Higa, director of Health Promotion and Community Wellness at Wai’anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, said WCCHC programs focus on food distribution, taking food to people other programs don't reach.


"There's not really any kind of emergency food plan for our community, especially since we're so isolated and furthest from the resources that are central in O'ahu.”


Higa says when state Department of Education food sites closed, there was no plan for getting food to some of the children most in need.


“We have a really large coast and a lot of the kids live further up in the valley or really out on the beaches. It took a lot of grassroots action and relationships-building with community members who really wanted to be part of the solution." 


WCCHC is the primary social service provider on the leeward coast, working with Hawai'i Food Bank. Since March, they have delivered more than 120,000 meals to keiki and kupuna, and distributed nearly 250 tons of food. Still, Higa says, the community's need is much greater.


"The resources, I think, don't get distributed evenly," Higa says. "So it feels like we have to work harder."


“What we found out of the 2,500 surveys we've done just in this COVID period is, the highest need is food,” according to Leina'ala Kanana, the center’s director of Community Health Services. She says after food, rent or mortgage and utilities are the biggest worries.


Currently, Aloha United Way is offering help though its COVID-19 Rent & Utility Assistance (CRUA) program. It aims to keep people in their homes, and this assistance is available statewide.  Kanana says that the program is proving to be a life line. 


"The people who come through to get rental assistance, they range from construction workers, dental hygienists, hairdressers, people in the tourism industry, airline industry, all walks of life we see come through submit applications for rent or utility assistance."


"I would say the majority of what we're seeing is probably in the 30-50 age range," says Kanana. "Many in their 20s are still kind of living at home and have the supports of extended family. We're talking about people who have been in the workforce for 10, 15 years, and are now, like, they're caught by surprise."


"Through the food distributions, the first couple were really hard to swallow for us," says Higa.  "We had a lot of people in that age group between 30 and 50 who were so embarrassed to have to come through a line for food. They've never been in a situation where they couldn't provide for their families.


"I get emotional thinking about it because we had grown men  in our lines. They felt like they had to explain why they were there. Their eyes were tearing and they were so embarrassed, but they had their obligation to their family to make sure they had food. So they would get in line to get the food.


"For the most part, we're seeing a lot more families who have never been in this situation where they had to ask for food. It's pretty heartbreaking."


WCCHC, fondly called the "Comp," offers double SNAP food benefits on local produce, eggs, meats, and more at their "Food Justice" farmers markets.


Working every angle, the Comp offers produce prescriptions through its pediatric department that can be exchanged for fruits and vegetables. They hope to get a similar kupuna program up and running soon.


WCCHC receives 71% of its funding through patient revenue, 15% through contributions, and 14% through grants.


Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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