Hometown Heroes: WHHA keeping community fed while supporting farmers

Editor’s note: Each Wednesday, West Hawaii Today is publishing a story about individuals, groups or organizations that have helped make life better for others in our community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Waimea Hawaiian Homesteaders’ Association on Saturday marked its 20th week of feeding hundreds in the community via its Umeke Ai o Waimea Nui program.

The program provides an umeke ai, or food basket or bag, filled with staple Native Hawaiian foods at a discounted price thanks to partnerships, contributions, donations and most recently a $100,000 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act grant via Hawaii County. That grant will fund the program through the end of the year.

“The idea behind Umeke Ai was that a lot of people are doing bags, and we wanted to include more of the stuff that the Native Hawaiians are going to eat,” said Sonny Shimaoka, who is the association’s director of agriculture.

The weekly Umeke Ai includes locally sourced pork (either smoked or kalua), fish, ground beef, poi, uala (sweet potato) and mamaki leaves to make a cleansing tea, as well as produce grown by the association’s farmers, like tomatoes and lettuce. Smoked marlin and lomi-lomi salmon bolstered this Saturday’s calabash.

“It’s kind of like a modified Hawaiian diet that’s healthy that we wanted for our local people to eat,” Shimaoka said.

Each Umeke Ai costs $20, though the actual cost of the array of food in that bag runs about $60 to $70, said Mike Hodson, Waimea Hawaiian Homesteaders’ Association president. The difference is covered by grants and contributions.

The program is similar to a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, program in that participants sign up in advance for a box.

“The reason why we do that is because we want to guarantee the farmer that we are going to buy 21 boxes of lettuce,” said Hodson, noting the group also works with Kanoe Peck at Da Fish House in Kawaihae to secure and process local-caught fish.

Umeke Ai came to life near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in an effort to support local and Native Hawaiian farmers, ranchers and the community at large as businesses shuttered and residents hit hard times. At first, the program targeted those in Waimea but has expanded to much of North Hawaii, from Waikoloa to North Kohala to Hamakua.

“Our association said, ‘let’s do something for our people,’” Shimaoka said. “It started out with just our district, but now it’s opening up to the community.”

Initial funding came via the Dorrance Family Foundation with a host of other organizations contributing to effort, including the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Parker Ranch, Richard Smart Foundation, Keck Observatory, Ulupono Initiative, Pierre and Pam Omidyar, Roberts Foundation, Vanguard Foundation, and First Nations Development Institute out of Colorado.

Based on surveys of the participants, Hodson the program is providing nutritious food to 300 families, feeding about 1,200 people each week. To ensure the menu is healthful, the association works with its affiliate Kipuka o Keola Native Hawaiian Rural Health Clinic.

“We’ve been working on a program to bring healthy food — especially high fibrous foods — to the Native Hawaiian population because, obviously, the Native Hawaiian population has the highest high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, so (that means) we’re not eating right,” he said. “That’s what this program is about — it’s not just feeding the Hawaiians, but making them healthy.”

Want to contribute to the effort? Email Sonny at [email protected]

Know a Hometown Hero that should be highlighted next Wednesday? It can be anybody, from a youngster doing good for the community, to a professional helping with the COVID-19 pandemic, or even a kupuna! Please send your nominations to [email protected] with the subject: Hometown Heroes Nomination. Please include the hero’s name, contact information and what makes them a hero.

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