How a school garden in one of Hawaiʻi’s most remote, isolated communities is supporting kūpuna (elders) with fresh fruits and vegetables

Anyone familiar with Maui’s beautiful, long, and winding road to Hāna can appreciate many of the challenges this remote community faces, especially in this time of uncertainty and the COVID-19 experience. With access to most health care hours away, protecting kūpuna (elderly) and other vulnerable residents remains a primary concern for the entire Hāna, Maui ‘ohana.

Funded in part by grants from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke is a local non-profit with long-term, deep roots in the community whose name translates to “In Working, One Learns.” The mission of Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke is to provide Hāna youth with a way to learn that makes sense to them, that builds their self-esteem and shows them they have the power to change their future. “Self-sustenance, community relationship, cultural connection—these are some of the principles we aim to pass onto the next generation, as we create caretakers of our future, leaders of our island,” states the nonprofit’s website.

Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke focuses on vocational training programs for K-12 youth and graduates who live in Hāna, on the east coast of Maui, where more than two-thirds of its population are of Native Hawaiian ancestry. Their original Building Program, established in 2000, continues today as a valued community resource. Since its inception, the program’s well-equipped woodshop on the Hāna School campus, and the students’ reputation for quality work, provided them with opportunities to build structures at school, and for kāpuna of the area, as well as other public and private projects in the community.  

From its original focus on construction, Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke has expanded in recent years to include support for building a community food system, and has dug into creating programs focused on growing food on the Hāna School campus and on a nearby farm, giving students the opportunity to, in many cases, return to their Hawaiian roots of cultivating and providing food for their community.

On a recent September morning, Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike volunteers on the Hāna School campus harvested kalo, or taro, a traditional crop used for making poi, a healthy and beloved Hawaiian staple food. The kalo is gathered for community food distribution packages, which have had a substantial increase in demand during the COVID crisis, especially for the community’s kūpuna who might otherwise not have access to fresh produce or traditional Hawaiian crops.

During “normal” times, the Mālama Hāloa program at Hāna School, also by Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke, engages students in growing, harvesting, and pounding kalo by hand (kuʻi ‘ai), to make poi year-round for the community. Currently, freshly harvested and cooked kalo instead of finished poi is being delivered as part of the kūpuna food distribution program due to COVID-19 concerns.

Though harvesting kalo on the Hāna campus is not new, nor is kalo the only crop grown and harvested for the kūpuna food distribution program, it is considered one of the most appreciated items. The current average harvests from both the school and Mahele Farm, right up the road and also run by Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke, total 180 pounds of kalo and 120 pounds of other produce delivered to about 20 kūpuna each week.

Mahele Farm contributes most of the fresh fruits and vegetables, with additional items from Hāna school including kalo, bananas, and ʻulu, or breadfruit, another favorite crop when in season. As one of the highest producing farms in the area, the staff and volunteers who make this such a productive place are proud of the amount of food they are able to get into the Hāna community.  Mikala Minn, Farm Manager at Mahele Farm, is also the school garden educator at Hāna School. In order to adjust to new COVID-19 restrictions, Minn is working with smaller groups in the garden for elementary level and creating custom lessons to support teachers and students with self-guided growing and learning opportunities in middle and high school. Minn is also utilizing mobile gardens that can be rolled to different classrooms in order to expand the garden learning beyond the garden itself. 

A model farm to school project, Mahale Farm for several years provided the learning environment for students to connect with where their food comes from via frequent school field trips to the farm. In the last few years the focus shifted to bringing the farm experience to the campus, as funding and scheduling of the field trips became more challenging to manage. Providing the growing experience on campus made sense. With the more recent challenges of doing this work amid a pandemic, Minn states, “we just decided to double down on growing more food at Mahale Farm and by extension doing what’s possible to add more capacity on the campus. We can loosely estimate the food we grow reaches the mouths of around one-third of our community on our best harvest days.  And we still have room to grow…at the farm and on campus.” Getting students more involved in connecting with their roots through growing food is a primary motivation for Minn, or “Uncle Mahele” as students are fond of calling him from the years of school field trips taken to the farm.

During the school year, students participate in nearly every part of the process of providing kalo or poi to the community through the Mālama Hāloa program. “During the summer we were able to employ a small group of students to work, however, our numbers were much less than years past due to COVID-19 and the disconnect from school and our programs since March. Yet, our staff and community volunteers at Mahale Farm continued to help make the kūpuna food distribution possible,” notes Lipoa Kahaleuahi, Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike Executive Director.

The gratefulness with which Kahaleuahi shares her manaʻo, beliefs, and personal experiences is inspiring, drawing on the good works she and the humble and dedicated people that comprise the Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike team do every day to support the local community. 

Preferring to do the heavy lifting behind the scenes, making things happen without fanfare or expectation of accolades, the Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke team works with other members of the Hāna ‘ohana, including businesses and local chefs, in their efforts of caring for the community.

“Our community works as a collective, serving our community together” Kahaleuahi shares as she refers to the efforts currently focused on support of kūpuna. She also notes there is a farmers’ market, currently located at the vacant lot near Hāna’s iconic Hasegawa General Store, which provides the hub for the kūpuna food distribution as well as an access point for other locally-grown fruits and vegetables from the Hāna area that make their way onto dinner tables by way of the market. There is also a local chef who creates meals-to-go and neighbors who provide dried fruits and teas or a community favorite, fresh coconut water, in addition to care packages.  

Looking to the future, the Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke team can envision Hāna as a great example of how growing food on a school campus can become a key component of creating sustainable, truly local food systems throughout Hawaiʻi. In Spring 2020, Hāna School was accepted into the pilot for the Hawaiʻi Garden to Cafeteria (G2C) Program, which is offered by the Hawai‘i Department of Education School Food Services Branch in partnership with the Hawai‘i Farm to School Hui, and which allows students to safely grow, harvest, and deliver fresh fruits and vegetables from a school garden or school agriculture program to the school’s cafeteria.  

Though COVID-19 and the related disruptions to campus life have slowed the momentum of the G2C Program at Hāna School, according to Nio Kindla, who serves as Regional G2C Coordinator for Maui and Lānaʻi, “when we get back to, or find, our new normal, Hāna School will be ready to get growing to begin providing student-grown produce to the cafeteria for student meals. It’s exciting to see this community have a vision of community food access that involves not just the school and local farms, but has a primary goal of turning students on to farming, culinary endeavors, and all things associated with creating a sustainable community food system.”

In addition to the newly renamed Hāna-Maui Resort, as well as food trucks in the community, Hāna School is one of the largest consumers of fresh fruits and vegetables in town. To have a significant amount of that food coming from the campus “might be a big, long-term vision, but if it can be done I think the Hāna community can show us the way” noted Kindla.   

While the community comes together to support kūpuna during this challenging time, the Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke team also continues work on a USDA Community Food Assessment grant to evaluate and better understand how this special place called Hāna can really become the self-sustaining community that is part of its cultural DNA. From its roots in building with lumber, Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke is now working to build a community food system with care for the land and its people in mind.