America's First and Last Food Bank | Civil Eats

America’s First and Last Food Bank

Thumb through the opening pages of Kauai’s phone book and you’ll find local maps that denote something you won’t find in most places – a tsunami line. The barely perceptible demarcation that runs just inside the coastline of Hawaii’s western most major island is a subtle warning of the always present threat of natural disaster. Perhaps more poignantly, it is also a reminder of how perilous life has and could become for the 63,000 year-round residents of this otherwise paradisiacal isle.

The Kauai Food Bank, whose parking lot physically falls within the tsunami zone, is the first, and depending on your directional orientation, the last line of defense for local food security in the United States. Compared to other food banks around the country, Kauai’s has been a first responder to the local emergencies that have shaken the island over the past two decades. In fact its mission statement reflects a rough reality: provide food for the hungry, respond to emergencies, and eliminate hunger. And as the food bank’s executive director, Judith Lenthall will tell you, it’s the emergencies which make the pursuit of the other two goals a greater than normal challenge.

In 1992 Kauai was ravaged by Hurricane Iniki which stripped the vegetation bare and left one-third of the population homeless. Two years ago, the island had rain of truly biblical proportions (it literally rained for 40 days and 40 nights) that produced flooding that killed 7 people and wiped out much of the small scale agriculture. Both events stretched Lenthall’s organization to its limits. “We’re remote and prone to disasters, both natural and manmade” Lenthall said. “We’re only one shipping strike away from severe food scarcity. If anyone should think about food self-sufficiency, we should.”

With a 2001 grant from USDA’s Community Food Project, the Kauai Food Bank embarked on a journey that would take them far from the safe harbor of everyday food distribution. Over the course of five years they cultivated a new crop of 57 small farmers who, at the project’s peak, were selling over $600,000 of fresh produce to local hotels as well as the Food Bank. To seed this new venture the Food Bank developed an innovative approach to assisting their kapuna – a respectful Hawaiian expression for the elderly – by linking their local food production to another USDA nutrition initiative, the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program. Through the SFMNP, over 1200 kapuna received almost $200 of locally grown produce per year directly through the Food Bank. And in a place where locally produced food is available year-round, this was a huge benefit for the island’s most nutritionally vulnerable.

Their local food project was a great idea and a successful model. But with an indifference that only nature can show, the well laid plans of men and women were destroyed by the 2006 flood. Broken hearted but not defeated, the Kauai Food Bank bailed out their warehouse and pulled their trucks from the volcanic red mud. They secured more donated food for distribution and started a food stamp outreach program that has provided an additional $114,000 in food buying benefits for the island’s needy. And they are beginning to dream the dream of local food production once again.

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“Food self-sufficiency was the Hawaiian way of life,” said Lenthall. “The ocean – our refrigerator – and our land provided everything we needed to eat well. We need to go back to that in order to go forward again.”

Though the next deadly disaster could be brewing somewhere in the far reaches of the Pacific, Lenthall’s more immediate concern are the developers who are building resorts and timeshares, and the endless stream of buyers who want a little piece of paradise. In a place where one-acre lots can sometimes fetch one million dollars, much has to be done to preserve those remaining patches of arable land. “We need more affordable housing, living wages, and lower food and energy costs. And we need to stay rural and agricultural.”

At the nation’s extreme western edge, sitting over 2500 miles from the U.S. mainland, Kauians are as vulnerable to high food and energy costs as a people can be (a supermarket green pepper was $5 a pound; gas was $1 more per gallon than on the mainland). Lenthall and the food bank she runs are committed to doing all that they can to protect the immediate food security of their little island community. At the same time, they are laying plans for long term food security by preserving and rebuilding their traditional agricultural way of life.

Photos by Nurpu and jennconspiracy.

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Mark Winne has 40 years of community food system experience which includes the position of executive director of the Hartford Food System and co-founder of the Community Food Security Coalition. He's currently an independent consultant for Mark Winne Associates which provides training and development services for food policy councils and other community food organizations. He speaks, writes, and trains on a number of topics related to community food systems and is the author of two books "Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardening, and Smart-Cookin' Mamas" and "Closing the Food Gap." Please go to for more information. Read more >

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  1. I've never thought of ourselves as America's First and Last Food Bank, so even your title was an eye-opener to me! Painted on the backdrop of our island's disaster roulette wheel, it's somewhat ironic that our safest bet for our food security is the preservation and cultivation of arable lands in our own backyard! While it's true that my husband uses the sea as our refrigerator, not everyone is so lucky. The ancient ways seemed to work but even in the WWII era we were food self-sufficient. I'm sure you can imagine that shipping lanes at that time were not the safest bet to import even the innocuous roll of toilet paper now and again! It CAN be done again IF there is the collective will. Right now, the will is with our Hawaiian sovereign community, a potpouri of smallish eco-sustainable groups, and a dynamite KCC (Kauai Community College) program. We're not yet at a tipping point to collectively "make hay" (or in our case, "make poi"). So we must PLAN for that time. It will come again, and we need to stay ready! Mahalo for your insightful article. ALOHA, Judy

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