Subscribing for Dignity: Alicia’s Story
Through a new food subsription program, Alicia Higa is working to connect her Wai‘anae community with greater access to fresh, locally grown food.
For Alicia Higa, food access is a part of her family’s heritage. “My grandmother and grandfather were on the first boats that came from Okinawa to work in the plantation fields,” she said. Originally working in the fields on Moloka‘i, they eventually moved to O‘ahu and worked in the pineapple fields. In the 1970’s, the family moved to Wai‘anae on the Leeward Coast of the island, where many of the other farm workers lived. And despite their proximity — and work — on farms, access to fresh produce was hard to come by.
“The grocery stores that were first started in Wai‘anae were based on the fact that a lot of the plantation workers lived on this side,” Alicia said. “So, grocery stores were set up knowing that shelf-stable food would last them the longest and was the cheapest. Since those days, a lot of the families here have become accustomed to eating shelf-stable food.”
Decades later, the strong agricultural tradition of the Wai‘anae community continues. Farms in the area produce most of the produce eaten on O‘ahu. But, that produce is often too expensive to be purchased locally, or it is sold to hotels or restaurants in Honolulu. “We’re a food basket, ironically,” Alicia said. “But our community is not familiar with or can’t access a majority of the produce grown here.”
Alicia is working to change that.
As the interim executive director of ‘Elepaio Social Services, an affiliate of the Wai’anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, Alicia is piloting a food subscription program in partnership with Hawai‘i Foodbank and with support from Feeding America’s Food Security Equity Impact Fund.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is connect people back to the food that is grown in our backyards.”
To that end, ‘Elepaio’s pilot program provides $250 per month for participants to use at two local farmers markets to purchase fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables, local protein, poi, and honey.
“The food subscription program started with the idea of giving autonomy back to people in our community,” Alicia said. “It helps in ensuring people have access to food they normally might not, especially our cultural foods like poi and ‘ulu. Having access to those things is really important not just for mental health but for physical health, as well.”
As part of the program, Alicia and her team are tracking the health outcomes of participants to help quantify the impact of fresh produce on one’s overall health.
“A majority of the health disparities we see in our community are related to nutrition and diet,” she said.
‘Elepaio is measuring quality of life for the heads of households, including stress and anxiety. They’re currently analyzing data from the first cohort of participants, and while Alicia doesn’t have hard data yet, she’s incredibly hopeful.
“The participants have found the program helpful in reducing stress and causing healthy weight loss,” she said. “But more importantly, it’s giving dignity back. At a time when it’s so hard to provide for your family, to be able to provide good food for your family does feel good.”