20 for the Next 20: Alicia Higa, Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center
She created a new department and her current position at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center to help nearby residents who need better access to healthy food and support in adopting healthier lifestyles.
Director of Health Promotion, Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center
Alicia Higa recalls a quote from her role model and auntie Rell Sunn, who was known as the “Queen of Makaha”: “Take care of the land, take care of the ‘aina, leave things in a better place.”
That is her goal as director of health promotion at Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center.
Higa has seen the struggles and disparities her community faces while growing up on the West Side of O‘ahu.
“(That) gives me an advantage into better understanding and seeing the needs of our community because I serve so many of my friends, family and neighbors. It makes me more aware of what will work and what will not work,” she says.
She started at WCCHC in 2005 as an assistant with the tobacco cessation program and later managed other programs. Higa says she ended up creating a new department and her current position to help the many people living on the Wai‘anae Coast who need better access to healthy food and support in adopting healthier lifestyles.
During the pandemic, the center has sharpened its focus even more on food access, Higa says.
“Our community is known as a food desert. There’s just not enough ways for our community members to access good, healthy, nutritious food.” So Higa created farmers market venues and programs that incentivize the purchase of local foods.
According to Higa, WCCHC is the only organization in the state that runs an unlimited doubling program for SNAP recipients on the purchase of local produce and local proteins. The program allows participants to purchase local products and pay half price when they use SNAP benefits.
One of her goals is to ensure the West Side does not have to depend on outside food coming in, but has its own supplies. “By putting programming forth that will support local food production but also support the health of our community members, it’s really just a win-win,” says Higa.
Joyce O’Brien, executive VP of administration at WCCHC says, “Her vision is always creative, forward-thinking with a positive ‘can-do, how can we do this together’ attitude.”
When she started at the center, Higa says she was insecure about herself and could never have imagined doing what she is doing now. But she recalls a director telling her to never feel that she can’t do something.
She says that person told her: “Because you’re working for our health center, and when you’re invited to speak at a conference, it’s because you are an expert of your own community.”