Reducing Food Insecurity in Hawai’i Leads to the Kūpuna Collective

The devastating impact of COVID-19 on older adults in Hawai’i mirrors the situation in the rest of the nation. “During this virus, I ran out of money for food. The Salvation Army came to my rescue. They gave me a food box that tasted so good. They called and followed up with me to see how I am doing and if I needed food … . Their follow-through was wonderful,” said one older adult who had been helped by the Salvation Army in Honolulu, a valuable service provider in the state’s Kūpuna Food Security Coalition.

Risks to older adults during the pandemic were compounded due to comorbidities and led to the closure of congregate meal sites, increased social isolation, limited support networks and prompted a fear of shopping at the grocery store.

In combination, these changes resulted in immediate and urgent food needs for older adults. The response, however, was uncommon. Hawai’i, with its large Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander populations, has a strong cultural and historic tradition of caring for kūpuna (Native Hawaiian for “elders”). The call to action was clear and the response from service providers and other community-based organizations was quick, given the common cultural respect that our communities have been built upon.

In nine months, the KFSC delivered 1.2 million meals to kūpuna in need.

The Elderly Affairs Division (EAD, Honolulu’s Area Agency on Aging) in March 2020 brought together a core team, including AARP Hawaiʻi, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Age-Friendly Honolulu and University of Hawaiʻi Center on Aging (UHCOA). The Kūpuna Food Security Coalition, or KFSC, as it became known, quickly expanded to more than 40 nonprofit, government, private and community organizations, and had a substantial impact on reducing food insecurity among older adults in Honolulu County.

Across the first nine months of its existence, the KFSC delivered 1.2 million meals to kūpuna in need, while providing 30,000 units of wraparound services. This was possible because KFSC members maximized community assets by mobilizing existing resources and leveraging a collective impact approach. 

Impacting Lives

Early on, the KFSC placed a priority on qualitative and quantitative data collection and evaluation to assess its impact. While the University of Hawaiʻi Center on Aging tracked metrics, opportunities and successes at a geographic level, the qualitative impact was also prioritized as stories are critical in growing and sustaining efforts. 

The service to kūpuna also created lasting friendships. Our Kūpuna, a nonprofit organization, partnered low-income and vulnerable kūpuna with a volunteer who was screened, vetted, and authorized to shop for groceries using the older adult’s SNAP/EBT account.

For one older adult with chronic illness, who was paired with a family that volunteered to shop for her, an invaluable friendship was formed: “They brought me flowers on Mother’s Day. Since I lost my daughter 12 years ago, that meant a lot. The [volunteers] are wonderful angels,” she said.

Creating a Strong Network of Providers

The KFSC leveraged diverse funding sources totaling more than $3 million raised through private foundation support (particularly by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg and Stupski foundations), private donations and federal CARES Act funding. This funding allowed service providers to collaborate and expand their service capacity and strategy as they never had previously.

KFSC helped one long-time meal provider, Hawaii Meals on Wheels (HMOW), adapt to the challenges of the pandemic. KFSC’s network of providers worked together to handle the increased demand for meals, which allowed HMOW to maintain continuity of services for existing clients, while expanding services to accommodate hundreds of additional requests. Also, HMOW and St. Francis Healthcare System, another KFSC member, formed a partnership to provide complex clients with an assessment and ongoing wellness checks by a social worker. 

The Hawaiʻi Public Health Institute (HIPHI), a nonprofit with more than 20 years’ experience cultivating programs and leading coalitions, served as a highly effective backbone organization. It provided fiscal intermediary services and convened weekly meetings on a virtual conferencing platform to allow members to share best practices, discuss key initiatives, and determine how to best work together.

‘The Collective expanded beyond food security to address intersecting social drivers of health.’

These strategies and successes have been shared throughout the aging network in Hawaiʻi. In particular, the Kūpuna Vaccination Outreach Group (KVOG) was modeled on the KFSC approach, which saw a huge success with nearly 100% of older adults initiated and 98% fully vaccinated in Hawaiʻi. These efforts evolved and expanded to form the Kūpuna Collective. 

Creating a Stronger Future: The Kūpuna Collective

The Kūpuna Collective envisions a permanent shift in the way the aging network comes together through cross-sector partnerships to leverage funds and respond nimbly to critical issues and needs facing our kūpuna. It applies and sustains the key features from KFSC that enabled widespread collective impact: a strong backbone organization, working across service silos, leveraging diverse funding sources, and using program analytics. The Collective expanded beyond food security to address intersecting social drivers of health, in recognition that many issues of aging are inherently linked and impact older adults’ overall ability to remain healthy and live independently.  

A three-legged stool of key players in the aging network continue to co-coordinate this large and diverse network of aging service providers, advocates, government agencies, academia and other community-based organizations. Backbone infrastructure is provided by HIPHI; the EAD, with counterparts in all counties statewide, brings expertise in delivering home- and community-based services; and finally, the UHCOA brings subject matter expertise and program analytics to support initiatives.

These co-coordinators provide support to member organizations so that the Collective can respond to crises and become a force in driving innovative solutions that support and empower kūpuna in Hawai‘i.

Visit the Kūpuna Collective at to learn more about the valuable partners and work of the Collective.

Christy Nishita, PhD, is the interim director at the University of Hawai’i Center on Aging; Jinyoung Lee is a doctoral student in the Department of Social Work at the Thompson School of Social Work & Public Health at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa; Lindsey Ilagan is a program manager at the Hawai’i Public Health Institute; Kayla Carlisle is an outreach and engagement specialist at the Hawai’i Public Health Institute; and Derrick Ariyoshi is a county executive in the Elderly Affairs Division, at the City and County of Honolulu, all in Honolulu.

Photo: As part of the Kūpuna Collective, Hawai'i students deliver meals to kūpuna (older adults) during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Photo credit: Mark Holladay