State DOH Issues Cease and Desist Order to Mālama Meals’ Free Meal Delivery Program
Mālama Meals was serving about 8,000 meals a day on O‘ahu, Kaua‘i and Moloka‘i.
Photo: courtesy of Mālama Meals
We were moved when we first heard about Ahmad Ramadan corralling his resources as the owner of Da Spot to feed O‘ahu, as the number of food insecure people increased alarmingly due to the economic fallout of the pandemic. He had set a goal to feed 10% of the population, an incredibly lofty one, especially given that he was running mostly on his own and other partners’ funds. But when we first spoke to him more than a month ago, he was already serving about 8,000 free meals a day—one of the largest single organizations to supply hot meals to Hawai‘i residents. Given his experience running large kitchens, he had the operational savvy to execute his goal—or so we thought. On Monday, the state Department of Health Food Safety Branch issued a cease-and-desist order to Mālama Meals, which was delivering meals to seniors, homeless people and other vulnerable populations on O‘ahu, Kaua‘i and Moloka‘i. “The operation had multiple food safety issues as it prepared and packaged hot meals on O‘ahu and shipped them to the Neighbor Islands without proper temperature controls,” said Peter Oshiro, chief of the DOH Food Safety Branch, in a statement.
Oshiro said the inspection of the operations’ West O‘ahu kitchen stemmed from a Mālama Meals’ volunteer who contacted the DOH, “worried that Mālama was not properly time stamping meals destined for kūpuna.” On the day of the inspection, May 15, other observed violations included improper handwashing, lack of paper towels at two sinks and lack of soap at one. Ramadan insists that the violations were small, like a volunteer not washing up to his elbows. “Everything they wanted us to fix, was fixed in 30 seconds or less.”
And yet, Oshiro said, “On Friday he also sent 1,200 meals to Kaua‘i after telling us he would not. DOH officials on Kaua‘i ordered the 1,200 meals destroyed.”
Melissa Moody, who coordinated the Kaua‘i deliveries, including the pickup from Kamaka Airlines and delivery to the 10 drivers who distributed the food across the island, says she convinced the authorities to at least let her divert the food from the dumpster to feed pigs. “It broke my heart,” she says. “How can something good just abruptly stop?”
Moody, a former food service manager at Mahelona Memorial Hospital, says for the Kaua‘i deliveries, she coordinated with all the drivers from each community, ranging from Kekaha on the west side to Hanalei on the north to make sure the meals were distributed within a four-hour window. She says she hopes to work with the DOH to get Mālama Meals back up and running “sooner rather than later.”
But on Monday afternoon, Ramadan said that he didn’t plan on continuing the program: He had financed it primarily with his own money, preparing about 360,000 meals since the pandemic reached Hawai‘i, and “the funding ran out.” (Though he has also told another publication that he plans on restarting once the kitchen is compliant.) On the phone on Monday, Ramadan struck a defensive tone, and said that he was disappointed that this order would prevent him from “feeding the kūpuna and the needy.” But it’s perhaps representative of how difficult the details are in addressing the widespread devastation due to the pandemic, whether it’s receiving unemployment benefits or procuring PPE for hospitals.
Oshiro confirmed that “Ahmad has stated that he will no longer do mass feeding operations. … The cease and desist was due to Mālama Meals losing active managerial control over their food operations, and not for Da Spot food service. … The violations observed were placing people considered to be highly susceptible populations at undue risk as a food illness outbreak could prove to be deadly to the keiki, kūpuna and disenfranchised that he purports to help.”