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Extra scoop of kindness

Cristina and Devin Pagaduan cook free lunches for keiki

Cristina and Devin Pagaduan pose with their own keiki in front of their Pastele House Maui food truck at UH-Maui College. When schools closed in March, they distributed free meals to kids. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon and a small, socially distanced crowd is gathered outside the bright green Pastele House Maui food truck in the University of Hawaii Maui College parking lot. Inside, owners Cristina and Devin Pagaduan busily prepare traditional Puerto Rican dishes, everything from gandule rice to panadejas to their namesake pasteles.

The daily specials change, but for the past nine months, the Pagaduans have written the same three words on the menu board: “Free keiki meals.”

Since late March, the couple has served free lunches to any child who requests one.

“All they have to do is ask,” Devin said.

Like so many others, the Pagaduans, who have four young children, were on edge when the state announced its stay-at-home order in mid-March. To their relief, they learned their jobs were deemed essential, so they could continue to work.

But Cristina says something gnawed at her.

“It was the word ‘essential,'” she explained. “It’s a big word. I knew people were going to count on us, so we had to do something to help.”

Her foremost concern? Making sure kids didn’t go hungry. In response to COVID-19, spring break had been extended and the Pagaduans knew there were students who would miss meals while school was out. That’s when the wheels started to turn. Literally.

On Wednesday, March 25, the same day the stay-at-home order went into effect, the couple began serving free lunches to kids; they also offered discounted meals for seniors. When the pandemic forced most schools to shift to virtual learning after spring break, they decided to take it a step further.

“I said, ‘We need to help feed these kids,'” Cristina recalled.

On Friday, April 3, she started making phone calls. By Monday, April 6, she had secured a location — the parking lot of the Waiehu Golf Course, which had temporarily closed — along with a crew of volunteers and enough food to prepare a free drive-thru-style taco lunch for 250 Waihee Elementary School students that afternoon. (And yes, a taco lunch for 250 is as logistically complicated as it sounds, but the Pagaduans pulled it off.)

In the weeks that followed, the Pagaduans served grab-and-go lunches to hundreds of students every Monday, rain or shine, in the golf course parking lot (and eventually, a spot in Paukukalo after the golf course reopened) until school cafeterias were back up and running. To cap it all off, they held a free drive-thru carnival for 400 people on Monday, June 1. It had all the trimmings: slices of pizza, popcorn, cotton candy, cupcakes and balloons.

To date, Cristina and Devin have given out more than 6,000 free meals (and counting) and are quick to point out it hasn’t been a two-person show.

“So many people helped us — with time, money and food,” Devin said. “It wouldn’t have been possible without them.”

Among those who stepped up to help: Darcie Pagaduan, Luana Mahi from the Maui Food Technology Center, S&J Bakery, Jon and Maile Viela from the All Pono Sports Organization, SunFresh Hawaii, Takamiya Market, UH-Maui College Chancellor Lui Hokoana, Robin Taylor from Maui Soda & Ice Works, Shaun and Kamaka Kan-Hai, Keli Gusman, Nicole Mendes, Walt and Tara Spangler, Rene Sodetani, the County of Maui, Waihee Elementary School Principal Paula Inouye and the Waihee Elementary School teachers and staff.

As the pandemic grinds on, the Pagaduans encourage others to give back in any way they can.

“There’s always a way,” Cristina said. “You don’t need a food truck to make a difference. Even if it’s a small act of kindness, it’s still going to matter to somebody. A little goes a long way.”

You can find the Pastele House Maui food truck in the UH-Maui College parking lot (off Wahinepio Drive) from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays and from 4 to 8 p.m. Sundays at the Maui Sunday Market in the Kahului Shopping Center parking lot (65 W. Kaahumanu Ave.). Kids must be present to pick up free keiki meals. To learn more, visit www.facebook.com/Pastele-House-Maui-LLC-1554615308128869/ or call 283-9817.

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