Kaimuki’s Aloha Harvest offers innovative ways to feed Oahu’s hungry

First-Hand Report
Barb Forsyth

KAIMUKI—On Monday morning I met with Aloha Harvest’s Executive Director Kuulei Williams in her small and homey office just above First Hawaiian Bank on Waialae Avenue. Aloha Harvest accomplishes an extraordinary amount of work with a skeletal staff that includes Williams, a food delivery coordinator and data base manager, two full time drivers, and two part-time drivers. 

While still relatively unknown on the island, Aloha Harvest is modeled on City Harvest in New York City and provides 142 social services agencies throughout Oahu with fresh food daily. The agencies they serve are diverse: food pantries, shelters, feeding in the park programs, elderly care, and youth care. All must have 501(c) (3) status to qualify. 

Although its mission is feeding Oahu’s hungry, Aloha Harvest differs from traditional food banks in two fundamental ways. For one, Aloha Harvest boasts a 14-foot refrigerated truck and a 12-foot refrigerated van, allowing them to deliver their food to the agencies they service on the same day that it is picked up. Since their vehicles are refrigerated, they are able to handle more prepared foods than many food banks, which tend to concentrate on canned and boxed goods.  For example, if Cheesecake Factory prepares a surplus of lasagna, Aloha Harvest can take the extra pans and deliver them to a social service agency just hours later, not only offering fresh restaurant fare but also preventing that food from entering the waste stream.

The second way that Aloha Harvest differs from food banks is that everything is picked up and delivered free of charge. They are able to do this because of their low overhead costs, which stem from the fact that they do not store food for longer than it takes to deliver it. By not charging a fee, Aloha Harvest allows these organizations to apply the savings to other items in their budgets, thereby protecting their bottom line.

The fact that their operations are so streamlined also provides greater flexibility in both their pickup and delivery schedules, as well as in the kinds of food that they accept. This advantage allows them to accept surplus food from restaurants and banquets. One of Aloha Harvest’s clients, for example, is Aloha Weddings, who offers their brides and grooms the option of donating their reception leftovers, provided that their caterer is compliant. Another is Sheraton Waikiki, who donates items nearing their expiration date that might not get used in time, such as dairy products. 

A typical day for an Aloha Harvest truck involves about 30 pick-up stops for food, which will then be delivered to three to eight agencies. The routes originate in Palolo Valley, move on to Kaimuki and Waikiki, and then out towards the Windward side, Waianae, or North Shore, stopping at various donors along the way. Town and central Oahu are served daily; the other communities are each served three days per week. 

All of Aloha Harvest’s drivers attend food safety classes and check food upon pick up and delivery. If something looks spoiled or otherwise problematic, they will either refuse it or dispose of it. No one has ever gotten sick from Aloha Harvest food during the more than 10 years of its existence.

In addition, both donors and drivers are protected under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996 and the Hawaii Good Samaritan Donation of Food Act, both of which were conceived to encourage food donation by allowing donor liability only in cases of gross negligence. Still, the number one reason why restaurants, caterers, and cafeterias decide not to participate is fear of being sued, which makes education about these laws all the more important. Often, the key to bringing a restaurant on board is finding the right person within an organization who will drive the process forward, someone who sees the importance of the service, the efficiency it offers, and is willing to put forth the minimal effort required to see it through. 

The businesses that provide Aloha Harvest run the gamut from huge corporations such as Pepsi Co. to small, locally owned restaurants such as Jose’s in Kaimuki, which is just around the corner from Aloha Harvest’s office.

Boston’s Pizza and Great Harvest Bread Company are two other examples of locally owned businesses that donate surplus food. In addition, there are 31 participating Starbucks on Oahu (with more to come), donating such popular items as pastries and coffee, as well as all KFC outlets on island. 

At this point in the conversation Kuulei paused and said, “you can’t imagine how much it means [for the hungry] to have a Starbucks muffin or a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken” that is fresh from the restaurant. To enjoy foods that the rest of us often take for granted can help people facing hard times preserve some of their dignity.

One persistent challenge facing organizations such as Aloha Harvest is securing enough produce. Fresh fruits and vegetables are particularly difficult to come by for those less fortunate, making Aloha Harvest’s recent partnerships with D. Otani Produce and Whole Foods market all the more exciting. 

The last couple of years have witnessed an economy in shambles, the casualties of which include a spike in the numbers of people needing basic assistance. The social service agencies that Aloha Harvest provides with food have recently seen their numbers double and triple.  This increase is in large part because many people who never would have imagined using such a service are now finding they have to choose between paying their mortgage and buying a bag of groceries.

The weak economy has also motivated restaurants to cut costs and reduce waste, so the trend has been towards cook-to-order meals rather than those prepared en masse, thereby creating less overage. With each restaurant producing less waste individually, a good trend on the whole, the pressure has been on Aloha Harvest to gain more accounts in order to meet their increased demands for food.

This surge in need prompted the concentrated effort that Aloha Harvest placed towards getting additional grants this past year. Since its founding in 1999, the organization has managed to deliver nearly six million pounds of food to Oahu’s hungry with limited resources. In order to expand their mission, they need more staff and increased funds to cover their overhead. Aloha Harvest provides all of their own containers to transport food: catering pans, lids, cake boxes, and so forth.

In addition, the maintenance and sanitation of their trucks represent an ongoing cost. The growing need for donated food also demands larger outreach and marketing budgets to help Aloha Harvest spread the word.

Despite these tough economic conditions, four Hawaii organizations have recently awarded three grants totaling $35,000 to Aloha Harvest. The organizations include First Hawaiian Bank Foundation, the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Friends of Hawaii Charities, Inc., and the Tommy Holmes Foundation Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation.

“We appreciate the invaluable services Aloha Harvest provides to the community,” said the President of First Hawaiian Bank Foundation, Sharon Shiroma Brown. The foundation demonstrated its appreciation with a $20,000 capacity building grant for the second year in a row to Aloha Harvest.

In partnership with the Sony Open, the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and the Friends of Hawaii Charities, Inc. awarded Aloha Harvest $10,000. On behalf of the grantors, Corbett A. K. Kalama, President & Chair of the Grants Committee, expressed thanks for “the work that Aloha Harvest does in our island home.”

The remaining $5,000 was provided by the Tommy Holmes Foundation Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation in the form of an unrestricted grant.

“In a time when many non-profits are struggling to keep the lights on, we are truly grateful for our partnerships with Hawaii organizations as it enables us to sustain our operational objectives of feeding the hungry, needy and homeless,” Kuulei said.

When asked about how Aloha Harvest has succeeded in securing funding when competition for grants is particularly fierce, Kuulei supposes that it has to do with how much more visible houselessness has become in recent years, both on the streets (and beaches and parks) and in the media. In addition, rising societal pressure to “go green” and consider sustainability when making consumer choices has helped their cause. According to the USDA, 27 percent of food produced for human consumption is wasted each year. Donating surplus food is not only the right thing to do from a humanitarian standpoint, but it also prevents it from entering the waste stream—something especially important to consider when living on an island.

One message Kuulei would like to convey is “that there is so much that can be given to Aloha Harvest. We have such an abundance. If people made the conscious decision to see what they had to give and how they could help, it could really make a difference. ” 

We can all help spread the word by telling our favorite restaurants, the companies we work for, and our friends and family about Aloha Harvest. When planning or attending a catered event or banquet, consider Aloha Harvest for the surplus and help Oahu combat hunger while reducing waste.

To learn more about Aloha Harvest, visit www.alohaharvest.org.