Earlier that morning, it poured in Hana. Now, with the sun creeping out from behind the clouds, the air is thick with humidity as Hauʻoli Kahaleuahi strolls through the heart of Hana School to the mala — or garden bed — dug into a stretch of grass between two rows of classrooms.
“Uala, radish, basil,” Kahaleuahi says, listing off each vegetable growing there.
“Daikon,” she continues, walking alongside the line of soil. “Lettuce, green onions.”
Today, the garden area is quiet. The children are inside the classrooms; they will come to work in the soil later. The row that Kahaleuahi walks near, which stretches the length of at least a couple classrooms, is one of five in this single small grassy section of campus. There are others scattered across the schoolyard that are tended by different grade levels, plus a number of hydroponic systems where students plan to grow lettuce, cabbage and tomatoes later this year.
It’s not uncommon for schools to have gardens, but what’s taking place at Hana School is of an entirely different scale. Students recently grew 200 pounds of uala, or sweet potatoes. There’s also an orchard of more than 90 fruit trees, made up of papaya, avocado, banana, mango, soursop and ulu.
The school is also in the process of constructing a greenhouse, in large part because of the organization where Kahaleuahi serves as the community outreach coordinator: Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke, which means “in working, one learns.” The nonprofit started two decades ago with a mission to teach children the construction trade at Hana School, where students eventually built 13 of the campus’ buildings, including the principal’s office and preschool.
Since then, Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke’s footprint has kept expanding, with an added focus on supporting local farmers and guiding students to be the next generation of land stewards. Its staff recently released a report — three years in the making — that examined ways to improve East Maui’s food security and boost access to healthy, locally grown foods for families. It’s an enormously complicated problem, but the organization is moving ahead with a number of solutions.
One of the simple ones: Start in the school to cultivate food on campus and teach students how to grow, harvest and prepare it.
“It started with one person’s passion to service kids, and it has evolved into this school within a school,” said Chris Sanita, principal of Hana School.
Hana School serves almost 400 children, from preschool to 12th grade, along with young adults who’ve recently graduated and work on campus through the nonprofit’s apprenticeship programs. Over the years, Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke has grown into the public school’s nonprofit partner, working to fill the gaps and overcome bureaucratic hurdles that often arise when dealing with state and federal education departments.
In partnership with the school, Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke’s goal is to equip the future community leaders of East Maui with the work experience and skills they need to be self-sufficient, while in the process empowering them with the knowledge to care for their neighbors and land around them.
It’s a way for the nonprofit to tackle Maui’s broader social and economic issues — like its fragile economy and food system that relies on imports — one child at a time. Even before the pandemic struck, sending Maui into an existential economic crisis, Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke secured a grant from the federal government to study East Maui’s food system and ways to reduce the region’s reliance on outside imports, in a place where the nearest business hub is a two-hour drive away.
Released this summer, the study found that compared to the rest of Hawaii, where up to 90% of food is imported, fresh, local foods make up almost one-fourth of Hana families’ grocery spending. Through dozens of surveys of families and schoolchildren, researchers confirmed that Hana residents want to eat more Hawaiian cultural crops — what they call “aina-based foods,” like kalo, uala, ulu and banana. Dishes like ulu lasagna, poi, laulau and kalua pig were some of the favorite lunch options picked by Hana keiki.
That shouldn’t be surprising, the study said, because more than 70% of residents are of Native Hawaiian descent. The problem, however, is all of the barriers to getting foods grown by East Maui farmers onto families’ dinner plates and into school cafeterias. The challenges range from the cost to lack of availability, which are tied to low pay for farming work, a shortage of start-up funding to invest in the region’s farmers and a lack of land to grow crops and machinery to farm them, the study found.
“We just needed to back up all of these observations that everybody was making,” said Lipoa Kahaleuahi, the organization’s executive director, who’s a graduate of Hana School. Before assuming that role in 2019, Lipoa served as the organization’s community outreach coordinator, which is now held by her younger sister, Hauʻoli.
Now armed with the data, she said Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke is putting more focus on improving one piece of East Maui’s food system: providing children with locally grown food at school. Before the pandemic, the school was serving about 450 meals between breakfast and lunch each day, she said.
But it isn’t so easy for the cafeteria to suddenly shift to buying produce from Hana farmers. Even though the state has set a goal to buy more local food, budget and staffing challenges have meant that much of the food provided by DOE contractors still comes from the mainland U.S. So instead of “farm-to-school,” Hana School is trying “garden-to-cafeteria.”
“It seems like the perfect spot to potentially make the most difference,” said Kahaleuahi, since the cafeteria serves hundreds of meals to children coming from Keʻanae to Kaupo each day.
This year, Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke staffed a garden coordinator, who helps design curriculums and guides the children in growing the fruits and vegetables to supply Hana School’s culinary classes, on top of the donations the class gets from the food bank. On a sunny morning last week, the scent of cinnamon and warm apples drifted through the school’s commercial kitchen, where a middle school class cooked up homemade applesauce.
Babette Lopez, who oversees the culinary program, was getting ready to set up tables outside the classroom later in the afternoon. If her classes cook dishes in a large enough volume, they become after-school snacks for the entire student body. On the menu that day: applesauce, steamed sweet potatoes, dehydrated bananas and banana peanut butter toast with chia seeds and a honey drizzle — all made by students.
The children also helped Lopez prepare several gallons of kimchi. They won’t eat it though; instead, it will be boxed up into containers to go into produce boxes that Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike gives out to a couple dozen kupuna each week.
“It’s good for the kids,” Lopez said.
Even in Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike’s building program, students are sometimes tasked with repairing kupuna’s homes out in the community. It’s a way to foster the next generation of community caretakers, Hauʻoli Kahaleuahi said, while also creating a pathway for kupuna to pass their knowledge down to Hana’s youth.
“We can make the greatest change here in our community,” Kahaleuahi said. “Our community is a very special place, where cultural knowledge, aina-based knowledge and hands-on knowledge exists and thrives.”
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.
“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.