Restoring Ancestral Abundance Through Youth Empowerment in Hawai’i
Colonization has negatively impacted indigenous communities’ health, wealth, and culture around the world—and Hawai‘i is no exception. As a FoodCorps service member with MA‘O Organic Farms, I have the privilege of working alongside visionary colleagues who are working to re-establish Hawaii‘s ancestral abundance.
Mala ‘Ai Opio—which translates to “the youth food garden” or MA’O for short—is a youth empowerment farm and social enterprise in Wai‘anae on the west side of O‘ahu. Our mission is to empower youth in the Wai‘anae community through leadership training, economic development and secondary education, while producing quality organic produce in a culturally appropriate, socially just and environmentally sustainable way. The farm covers the cost of tuition for its student interns to earn an associate degree with a certificate in community food systems, while also providing opportunities for them to learn by stewarding the land. It is a space for students of this community to practice Hawaiian values through organic farming in a way that seeks to transform the local economy into one that is more just and equitable.
Currently, about 40 youth between the ages of 18 and 25 run the farm. On production days (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays), some of the seasoned interns begin work before the sun rises over the Wai‘anae mountain range to harvest salad greens while the temperatures are still cool. By seven in the morning, all of the interns are present for opening circle to chant “E ho mai” (a traditional chant that asks us to be open to receiving knowledge for the day) and set the day’s objectives. They grow a wide variety of produce from “apple bananas” to the ever-popular kale, and are responsible for every aspect of producing quality food: soil preparation, planting, harvesting, washing, packing, and delivery. The farm’s partners include restaurants, health food stores and supermarkets across the island. Food our interns have lovingly grown can also be found at three farmers’ markets and in CSA boxes. I’m constantly impressed by the interns’ ability to take the lead on farm operations, balance schoolwork and home life, and simultaneously grow into their role as community leaders.
At MA‘O, I serve under the Farm-to-Fork program, which engages students in hands-on learning related to growing food, community-based food systems and healthy eating. Much of my service focuses on decolonizing diets and helping to reawaken student and family relationships with the ‘aina—the land that feeds. This is especially important in light of the historical context of land dispossession and subsequent cycle of poverty that the Native Hawaiian community has experienced. On average, a Native Hawaiian will live 6.2 years fewer than others in the state. [1. Assessment and Priorities for Health and Well-being in Native Hawaii and other Pacific Peoples. (2013). Department of Native Hawaiian Health; Center for Native and Pacific Health Disparities Research; John A. Burns School of Medicine; University of Hawaii at Manoa.] Health disparities in this community also include higher rates of diabetes (130 percent), heart disease (68 percent), and cancer (34 percent) compared to state averages. This is particularly concerning considering that ancient Hawaiians were a completely self-sufficient and healthy people before Western contact.
Growing and eating our own food is a radical act—it is a redefinition of how we nourish ourselves and a way for us to take our health and the health of our families and communities into our own hands.
Due to their geographic isolation, ancient Hawaiians created the ahupua‘a, a system of communal abundance within a triangular land division, maintained between boundaries set by the narrow streams running from the mountains to the broad base of the coastline. However, this system was disrupted starting with missionary contact beginning in the 1820s. Later in 1848 came the “Great Mahele“, which privatized much of the communally stewarded land, effectively displacing a large majority of Native Hawaiians from their traditional lands and practice of subsistence farming. The current industrialized food system and continued marginalization of indigenous peoples in Hawai‘i has led to highly-processed “foods” being more accessible than real food provided by the ‘aina. The disconnection between, and devaluation of, land and people is at the heart of the health and socioeconomic disparities experienced today.
While the relationship between land and people has become severed for many Hawaiians, the connection to ‘aina remains foundational to Hawaiian cultural identity. The spiritual values and mythologies of this place are rooted in malama ‘aina and aloha ‘aina—stewarding and loving the land. The central role of ‘aina in Native Hawaiian health and well-being suffuses countless Hawaiian sayings including our state motto, “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘aina i ka Pono” (“The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”) and the much-loved saying “He ali’i ka ‘aina; he kauwa ke kanaka” (“The land is a chief; humans are its servants”). Cultivating a reciprocal, familial relationship with the natural world is even prominent in the origin story of the Hawaiian people in which kalo (taro) is the sacred older brother of all Hawaiians.
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With these ‘olelo no‘eau (Hawaiian proverbs) as guiding principles, many community organizations across the state are working at the grassroots level to support Native Hawaiian communities and promote physical, social and economic well-being. Reconnecting with traditional cultural values and practices has strengthened resilience and renewed collective identity, contributing to holistic health. This cultural resurgence has continued since the Second Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s—a renunciation of the tourist “culture” and strengthening of a distinct Hawaiian identity through the revitalization of Hawaiian language, hula, star navigation and voyaging, and traditional food and farming practices. The ability to navigate the modern world while being rooted in ancestral understanding is at the core of what we teach at MA‘O.
One of the most rewarding aspects of my service this year has been teaching middle school students about nutrition and local food systems as part of an initiative called ai i ka la‘au, or “food is medicine.” I’m particularly interested in reintroducing traditional staples such as ‘ulu (breadfruit) and kalo (taro), especially because many youth have become disconnected from these sacred foods. This emphasis on decolonizing diets has led to preparing poi smoothies, ‘uala (sweet potato) brownies, and ‘ulu pancakes with the students. The time we spend gathered around food also lends itself to conversations about how consuming more fresh produce can serve as both preventative and curative medicine and why growing our own food and supporting local food economies is important—particularly in a state that imports approximately 90 percent its food. [2. Loke, M., and P. S. Leung. 2013. “Hawai‘i’s food consumption and supply sources: Benchmark estimates and measurement issues.” Agricultural and Food Economics. 1:10. doi:10.1186/2193-7532-1-10.]
Growing and eating our own food is a radical act—it is a redefinition of how we nourish ourselves and a way for us to take our health and the health of our families and communities into our own hands. A colleague once said that our work is in the “(re)membering” of our youth to the ‘aina and by indigenizing food, farming, and educational systems, we resist the effects of colonization and globalization. At MA‘O, we hope to inspire and empower our young leaders to use their education to become agents of positive change. We provide a space for students to strengthen a sense of belonging and pride in who they are, emphasizing the culture in “agriculture” and letting that be the foundation from which to navigate the world.
Tasia Yamamura is a FoodCorps service member serving her second year at MA‘O Organic Farms, a youth empowerment and leadership farm in Wai‘anae, Oahu. She is also a food systems activist, fledgling permaculturist, plant-based health advocate, and avid reader and bookstore loiterer.
Read her full bio here.