Mālama Meals Wants to Feed 10% of O‘ahu During the COVID-19 Pandemic
A new group formed by Da Spot and other partners currently serves more than 8,000 free meals a day to food-insecure groups, and hopes to ramp up to 100,000.
Photos: courtesy of Mālama Meals
Ahmad Ramadan wants to feed 10% of the island’s population. “We are not billionaires or super wealthy or anything,” says Ramadan, owner of Da Spot. But Mālama Meals, a new group formed by Da Spot and three other partners in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is currently serving more than 8,000 free meals a day to low-income seniors, public housing residents, homeless communities and other in-need groups around the island. As the numbers of unemployed and food insecure people grow daily, Ramadan hopes to ramp up to 30,000 meals in the next few weeks, with an ultimate goal of 100,000 meals. A day.
“To be honest, there's very few people that can do this,” he says. “I know you’re probably thinking ‘What are you talking about? That’s crazy.’ But being absolutely serious, we can do it.”
You might know Da Spot as the cafeteria-style eatery on King Street and wonder how that space can pump out that many meals. But Da Spot, which originally started as a hole-in-the-wall on Pumehana Street in 2005 with a $1 menu that attracted lines of students, has been quietly making food for thousands of people for years via satellite kitchens, the largest at UH West O‘ahu. Da Spot feeds movie and TV crews, as well as UH West O‘ahu, Leeward Community College and Tokai University. Its offerings are just as eclectic as its eaters, with a catering menu of more than 1,000 options and entrees including Egyptian chicken curry, Thai vegetable curry, eggplant Parmesan and garam masala lamb shanks.
“It’s about eclectic, worldwide food,” Ramadan says. “As complex as food may be, it’s at the same time extremely simple.” His menu may seem chaotic, but “once you get a base, it’s pretty easy after that, to know what to do. People focus on the differences in food, but actually, there are more similarities than differences.”
Despite only dining in a restaurant once in his life, he says, it was natural for him to pursue a food business, and now, to step in where he sees a need. His father, an entomologist for the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture, deals with biological controls for the state (he helped save wiliwili trees from wasp devastation), “and I grew up in this environment trying to find solutions that are organic or natural. And as part of our religion, we couldn’t eat food that wasn’t halal or kosher. So I grew up going to farms and slaughtering cows and sheep and chicken—eating fresh for me, that’s just a normal thing.”
Mālama Meals received donations from businesses including The Kāhala Hotel & Resort, Y. Hata, Applebee’s and Sun Noodle, and has also partnered with Aloha Harvest and ChefHui, a new network of chefs and restaurateurs, for ingredients. But even with all the donations, he and his wife, Ako Kifuji, and his Mālama Meals partners—Steve Sombrero, owner of Aloha Beer Co.; Gilbert Sakaguchi, owner of Blue Water Shrimp; and Dan Port, in charge of Mālama Meals’ IT—are burning through $20,000 a day. “I don’t have Instagram and Facebook and a million followers and all that,” Ramadan says. “But I do know how to make food for a lot of people. That’s what I’m good at.
“And so we want to continue doing this, but we are such small potatoes. We need the big funders and organizations to come in and say, ‘We see what you're doing, we’re here to help and we’re here to stand with you.’”
Currently, Mālama Meals delivers meals to communities from Wai‘anae to Papakōlea to Institute for Human Services to Kahuku Elderly Hau‘oli Hale. “What happens is when people can’t eat, then they don’t feel good,” says Ramadan. “So we need to get back our feeling of hope and happiness. Then we can really focus on the bigger picture and move forward. That’s why I feel it’s an absolute obligation. Because if we don’t do it right, who are the young people that are looking to us—we should be at our utmost best. We want to see people prosper, and we want to see people happy. That’s important to us. So we keep moving forward.”
To request a meal or donate visit malamameals.org