June 11, 2012

By Emily Maretsky
The Kaselehlie Press

On Wednesdays in Ohmine, Pastor Tuiono Tuitaru and a handful of volunteers from the Christian Mission Fellowship haul a cauldron of homemade soup out in front of the church and prepare the day's lunch for those in need in their neighborhood. By noon time, the soup cups and bread are out on the table and a group, mainly children in their school uniform shirts, gathers to get some hot lunch. The CMF church's free lunch program has only been running for four months, yet it's already been drawing a crowd. The weekly soup kitchen is the only one of its kind in Pohnpei, but despite its altruistic intentions, it has drawn controversy over whether hunger issues exist in Pohnpei.

The CMF church, largely run by Fijians, has been open in Ohmine for four years and has run a number of outreach projects in the community. "We know the neighborhood, we know that there are many less fortunate," Tuitaru said. He explained that he just had a sense that people in the community were hungry and that he had conversations with local residents about their struggles with getting food on the table.

However, on an island with seemingly endless breadfruit and banana trees, there are some in the neighborhood who disagree about whether hunger is an actual problem in the community.

"At first, there was a lot of negative response… many said, 'This is the first time we heard there are homeless or hungry people on Pohnpei,'" Tuitaru said. "A [government official] said, 'Don't put "less fortunate," just say "open to everyone,"'" referring to the sign for the lunch.

The casual observer to the Wednesday lunch scene would be struck by the number of schoolchildren who come by for a cup of soup. "We didn't expect so many from Ohmine Elementary and from the Catholic school to come," Tuitaru said.

Ohmine Elementary School, which is about two blocks down the road from the CMF church, does not serve school lunch and expects that students return home for lunch or have parents drop off lunch for their children. According to members of the CMF church, children come for lunch because they either live too far away from school to go home for lunch or do not have food at home to eat.

However, the Vice Principal of Ohmine Elementary, Rosalina Sienes, said that students are just being naughty and taking advantage of the free lunch nearby and are not an example of hunger in the community. She explained that the school does not serve lunch because there is no cafeteria.

"The students [at Ohmine Elementary] aren't less fortunate," Sienes said. "The teachers hear students say, 'Let's go and have free lunch' and we have to explain to them that here, we're not like the U.S. with starving children."

Sienes explained that most students just go home to eat, have parents drop off lunch, or bring money to buy food at one of the vendors on campus. "Some [students] don't have lunch, but they usually share… even teachers share," she said, emphasizing that no one goes hungry.

From the crowd that has gathered at the church on recent Wednesdays, it has been hard to tell whether those stopping by for lunch are truly in need or just enjoying a free meal.

It may be hard to tell if there are hunger problems in the community because, according to Elizabeth Osy, one of the CMF church's lunch program coordinators, people don't want to admit to struggling to feed their families. "It's part of the pride we have in Pohnpei - it shows shame if you get hungry," she said. "People approach [the church] and ask for food, for a bag of rice or breadfruit, but they're not begging."

Additionally, she said that leaders don't want to acknowledge that there are "less fortunate" people in their communities. "It's pride and ignorance, leaders are rich people who don't understand… They don't want to see it but it's happening," Osy said.

In Ohmine, she said, a large part of the problem is that many outer islanders move into the already crowded neighborhood, and there just isn't enough land to adequately plant food.

Kolonia senator, Fernando Scaliem, who also resides in Ohmine, had not heard of the CMF church or lunch program before. He has not seen or heard of hunger issues in his community. "When I campaign, people don't ask for money or food, they ask for sakau - it's not a necessity," he said.

Although he acknowledges the outer island migration into the neighborhood, he said that hunger has not been an issue because most who move into the community, move in with already-established families. "Here, we're always sharing," he said, referring to Pohnpeian's responsibility of taking care of family and each other.

Soup kitchen-style outreach is more common in Fiji. "Maybe Fijians are not used to our system, no Pohnpeians go homeless or hungry unless they're lazy or mentally ill," he said. Scaliem added that he would be open to speaking with parents in the neighborhood to see if they were struggling to feed their families, but otherwise believes that the church is simply doing something nice for the children in school nearby.

Mereseini Seniloli, who works in the Sustainable Agriculture department of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and is also a member of the CMF church, handles food security issues on island regularly.

Seniloli says that while hunger problems in communities on Pohnpei can arise from migration from the outer islands exhausting resources in overcrowded areas, most has to do with an over reliance on imported foods and under-utilization of local food and resources.

"Pohnpei is well-resourced in foods like breadfruit, pandanus, papaya. The resources are there, we just need to meet peoples' needs… Families are not utilizing their resources and there's too much imported food," Seniloli said.

Seniloli said that the agriculture department provides training to Pohnpeians to increase local agricultural production and evaluate nutrition, but that the church addresses people's immediate, basic needs first. "If someone is dying of hunger, how can they listen?" she said. "The CMF is for feeding people who are asking for food on the street."

She also believes that hunger issues deserve more attention from local government, and that the problem is more widespread than just Ohmine. "Once the need is highlighted, there can be more help," she said.

In the meantime, the Christian Mission Fellowship plans on continuing and expanding their lunch program in the coming months. "Long term, we want to change the menu, pray for donors, and have [lunch] maybe two days a week, and one day, even every day," said Tuitaru. "We just hope to keep spreading God's word."