Roots Café in Kalihi Valley Encourages Healthy Relationships With Food, Through Community
Find fresh, local ingredients cooked into affordable entrées that are healthy and delicious.
Photos: Shinae Lee
Kokua Kalihi Valley’s family services building doesn’t seem like a place for a café. There’s a help desk in the front and no food in sight, but walk in and poke your head around the corner. The hallway, lined with photos of people smiling or farming, opens up to Roots Café filled with people sitting around long tables, talking story and connecting over food. This is what Roots director Sharon Kaiulani Odom says the café is all about—encouraging healthy relationships with food, through community.
“Whether it’s Hawaiian, Samoan, Micronesian or Filipino, food brings a family together, it passes down stories, it passes down history, it passes down culture,” Odom says. “And so how do you use food to promote the health of a community? That’s why we started.”
Roots is a grant-funded program under the Kokua Kalihi Valley health center that hosts a multitude of programs to foster a healthy food system and a healthy community. Its café is open only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The menu is small, and changes each day depending on what the land gives them, says chef Jesse Lipman.
The land gave a lot of eggplant the week I went, so Lipman and his staff cooked up talong relleno, a Filipino dish of eggplant stuffed with pork (or tofu) and fried with egg like an omelet, and served with hapa rice and salad on the side. Dressings and condiments are house-made. I don’t usually like arugula, but I did after drizzling Roots’ dragon fruit mint dressing on top. Continuing with the dragon fruit theme, Roots also served a bright pink, fizzy cooler and dragon fruit kombucha (drinks are $2–$3).
Along with the daily entrée ($8), the cafe serves a soup, salad or sandwich (ranging from $3–$8)—the day I went, options included a miso fish and pickled veggie sandwich and vegetarian options including the Farmer Bowl, made with Swiss chard, sweet onion and spices over rice and kalo or cassava. I indulged in the dessert of the day ($4), and was glad I did. Where else can I try jackfruit ice cream over warm maple walnut cake?
Odom says she can tell you exactly where about 75% of the food comes from. Roots operates the Food Hub, which partners with 27 farms, from Ilio Lani in Waimānalo to Hāloa in Hāna, Maui, to distribute foods at low cost (mostly through its mobile market). If Lipman and Odom can’t get an ingredient from a Food Hub partner, they’ll try another local option—maybe tofu from Mrs Cheng’s Soybean Products in Kalihi, or local wholesale fish.
All this local, organic food, plus the labor to cook it doesn’t come cheap—the café wouldn’t break even if it weren’t for volunteer staff and grant funding. But for Odom, the economics are worth it if it means bringing affordable healthy food into a community.
“If our goal was truly just moneymaking, we’re a terrible failure at that,” Odom says. “But if our goal is to bring a community together to create healthy spaces, to deliver healthy foods to raise people’s awareness about the food system, we’re doing really good at that.”
And they don’t just do it at the café. Roots brings food directly to workplaces and homes with its mobile market (that also takes EBT), hosts events to teach people about food systems and how to cook, and sells local organic produce at its café’s Farmacy. Diet habits don’t change overnight, so Roots tries to make it as convenient as possible to eat healthy, but more importantly to want to eat healthy.
People come after health center appointments or for lunch meetings. Odom’s high school friends of 45 years come once a month to catch up, and soldiers from neighboring Fort Shafter stop by every week. The food is good and affordable, and the space makes me feel at home.
Open Tuesdays and Thursdays 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., 2229 N. School St., 791-9400, rootskalihi.com/roots-cafe-roots-kkv