Statewide, organizations, communities, and individuals have come together in a time of crisis to work cooperatively, think creatively, and lift one another higher than they could go on their own. One sparkling example of a community’s resilience, resourcefulness, and tenacity is the district of North Kohala on Hawaiʻi Island, home to Leslie Nugent, associate director at the North Kohala Community Resource Center, youth mentor with Kahua Paʻa Mua farm-based mentorship program, and project organizer for North Kohala Eat Locally Grown. Ms. Nugent has been facilitating the North Kohala Food Access weekly calls, and recently sat down (virtually!) with Healthy Eating/Active Living West Hawaiʻi Community Coordinator Lisa DeSantis to talk about the calls and what they inspire within the community. 

 Lisa DeSantis (LD): Pre COVID-19, what were your positions like?

Leslie Nugent (LN): I’ve been in my role at the resource center for the past two and a half years where we serve as a fiscal sponsor for a broad range of community projects including the Kamehameha Day Celebration, KES Discovery Garden, and more. That looked like a lot of project development, grant writing, and reporting, budgets, and connecting with project organizers. Many of these projects and programs have been postponed due to the restrictions of this time.  I’m passionate about working within our community food system through the mentorship program and initiatives through North Kohala Eat Locally Grown.

LD: What led you into this role of convening the North Kohala Food Access call? How did it come together?

LN: It became apparent it was necessary when COVID-19 struck and we saw the incredible amounts of

North Kohala food access work. Image courtesy of Leslie Nugent

unemployment and furloughs in our community. We knew that would bring with it a time of great hardship for our community, and in North Kohala we’re already aware of the fragility of our food supply. Our community already has a goal of producing 50% of the food it consumes, which came out of our community development plan, and we created a community-based strategic plan for food self-sufficiency almost ten years ago, so we knew that food security and food access was a primary need for our community during this time and that the need may increase as time progresses. People in North Kohala have a deep connection to hunting, fishing, gathering, and growing their food, yet we also see high rates of students receiving free and reduced lunch, as well as other food insecurity signs. We wanted to create an inclusive space to bring people together to talk about what the needs were and what the resources were and how to connect those. We were already talking together, so we decided to make a standing call. 

LD: Can you describe the NKFA call? What items are discussed? Who participates?

LN: The call is informal, it is a place for different community partners to come together and share updates about the work they’re doing, to ask the group for help. It brings in various levels of partnership: county officials, leaders of non-profits, farmers, people who aggregate and distribute food, school liaisons and teachers, faith-based leaders. It’s a cross-sector, diverse group of individuals that share the common value of ensuring our community’s food and nutrition needs and supporting our local farmers. 

LD: What does the group hope to accomplish? What are one or two major successes that have come out of the group’s work?

North Kohala Community Resource Center. Image courtesy of Leslie Nugent

LN: I think one of the greatest successes is not so much pinned to one moment but it is the broad range of support and generosity and level of support coming from the community. Just last week there was a food distribution and the county park decided to open up to support the distribution because so many people have been showing up. Big Island Giving Tree, a non-profit that brings strength to our island’s food security in partnership with Feed Kohala coordinated the event.  We feel the success is in the diversity of partners, resources, and individuals coming together to share those resources with the community. It lends a sense of hope during this time.

I do not speak for the whole group: there are so many voices on the call, but because of our consistency, inclusivity, and focus, we’ve created a space where people feel supported so they return each week. We’ve created a network of support for those doing the very real on-the-ground response work that we hope to strengthen and continue with as time moves forward. 

LD: How can readers get involved? Does the group have any needs readers can help attain? 

LN: We need an intern! But seriously, people can visit northkohala.org and follow the COVID-19 response page where they can find information about the Feed Kohala initiative and a list of food and nutrition resources in North Kohala. We keep an up-to-date resource list there, and if folks want to be part of the conversation or join our call, they can email me at Leslie@northkohala.org. Also on that same resource page on our website, we have a donate button where we welcome donations to the Feed Kohala Initiative.

LD: Thank you for your time. Do you have any closing thoughts?

LN: This time of COVID-19 has highlighted so many inequities in our communities: we see economic inequalities influenced by race and gender, and we see these disparities highlighted in our food system. This work is to support those who are food insecure and our farmers, but we also hope to strengthen connections and create new ways that empower people to reclaim their resiliency. We see people creating positive change: growing their own food, building bridges, and we see the opportunity to create more equitable changes in our food system. We’re seeing it here in Hawaiʻi but also nationally, and globally. Our work is focused on our community but we are part of a national and global movement of food sovereignty.