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Happy Bento sticks to its roots while adapting to COVID-19

By: David Reardon and Elizabeth Ufi

18 October 2020

00:00 / 08:05

Deanna Cornelius is one of those optimists who believes the world can emerge from the dark tunnel of COVID-19 the better for it.


As a nutritionist in Hawai’i and owner of The Happy Bento, that means getting the islands closer to something resembling self-reliance when it comes to food -- and the healthier the food, the better.


“We spend a lot of time and energy sourcing locally grown organic produce,” said Cornelius, whose company used to supply school lunches for several O'ahu private schools (hence the name, “The Happy Bento”). But like many others, Cornelius has had to adapt. In her case, though, it has meant remaining true to some fundamental values.


One of them is that food can be tasty and nutritious. Another is that — especially in Hawai’i where great varieties of food can be produced year-round — locally-sourced is the way to go.


The Happy Bento has adapted by doing dinner deliveries for all instead of lunch for kids (although she does hope for an eventual return to serving schools). Cornelius, who previously had a company called Salad Envy, has always featured healthy food; many of her customers in years past were kupuna, many challenged healthwise with diabetes and other afflictions.


The Happy Bento now offers a rotating variety of meals, featuring local favorites like kalbi ribs and kalua pork and cabbage. Fat and salt are minimized, but the food is still flavorful. Delivery is free on O'ahu for four or more items, and there is a 10-percent discount if you pick up your order.


Meals are $15 or $16 each, with discounts for family-style orders; for example, grilled shrimp with bok choy and couscous was $16, but $30 to feed two and $56 to feed four. Meals can be refrigerated for three or four days, or frozen.


In March, The Happy Bento joined forces with Flo’s Kitchen. Both use one of the industrial kitchens at The Pacific Gateway Center in Kalihi. Flo’s Kitchen produces lunches for delivery and pickup, while The Happy Bento does the same for dinner. And they help each other.


“We share this facility and we knew each other,” said Albert Leyendecker, husband of Florence Harding (the Flo from Flo’s Kitchen). “We looked at (collaborating) as the best way to keep going.”


They also agree that supporting local farmers is important.


And this is where Cornelius’ vision of a self-sustaining Hawai’i comes in. “The solution, I think, is staring us in the face. We have to keep the (local) farmers going,” she said.


Tested by the stress of the pandemic, the local food chain can become stronger, Cornelius said.


This can be accomplished by a return to the way traditional Hawaiians made sure everyone was fed. Cornelius advocates a return to some form of ahupua'a. One aspect of this political division of the land was that the different parts of regions contributed food produced to a centralized collection that would then benefit all. The regions would include mountains, lowlands and access to the ocean to facilitate balanced diets for every community. 


“If you trade within that system, it can work,” Cornelius said. “O'ahu could be its own ahupua’a.”


Micro-versions of this concept are ongoing all over Hawai’i already. Food sharing and giveaways of all kinds continue nearly eight months into the pandemic. The Gateway Center is a prime example. Aloha Harvest has used it as a hub for food that would go to waste otherwise; it is collected there from restaurants, distributors, grocery stores, farms … and then distributed to those who need it.


“The aim now is to allow no one to go without food,” Cornelius said.


And, as The Happy Bento shows, even during a crisis that food can be healthy, tasty, and locally sourced.

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