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Farm tour cultivates diet drive

MA'O Organic Farms' mission dovetails with Michele Obama's push against obesity

By Susan Essoyan


College interns who help run one of the island's largest organic farms guided first lady Michelle Obama through fields of salad greens and papayas Saturday, then sat down to swap stories with her about their efforts to improve the health of their communities.

Wearing a sleeveless navy dress, Obama immediately put everyone at MA'O Organic Farms at ease, sharing hugs and laughs with the students, who were sporting T-shirts with a "No Panic, Go Organic" slogan.

"She was so outgoing, just the easiest person to talk to," said Ku'uleilani Samson, 21, a co-manager at the farm who graduated from its internship program. "She made you feel totally comfortable. She had this vibe I felt, to just calm down and be yourself."

The nonprofit farm, on 24 acres of Lualualei Valley in Waianae, is devoted to raising healthful crops for local consumption while also growing a new generation of leaders in touch with the land and their heritage.

Students in its Youth Leadership Training program put in 20 hours a week on the farm while attending college full time. They earn full tuition waivers as well as a monthly stipend that is often a major source of income for their families. Funds come from revenue generated by the farm as well as from grants.

"I've heard about all that's going on here for years and years," Obama told the students. "I jumped at the opportunity to come and not just see for myself but also allow the world to see what you all are doing.

"As you know, I planted a little garden in my back yard," she added, referring to the White House Kitchen Garden. "One of the primary reasons we planted the garden was as a form of education. Our goal is to eliminate childhood obesity in a generation."

MA'O's mission dovetails with Obama's nationwide Let's Move campaign, which aims to raise a healthier generation of children through better nutrition and exercise. Discovering that she and one of the interns shared a taste for arugula, Obama talked about the importance of exposing young palates to a wide range of tastes and improving access to fresh food.

"If we teach young people early about how to eat and we give them a connection to the food they eat ... that opens up a broader conversation about health and movement, but also deeper issues like access and affordability," Obama said. "In our under-served communities, people are growing up without vegetables because people don't have grocery stores. You are growing up eating vegetables and liking them."

That message hit home with the Waianae youth, who said they found it a challenge to persuade even their own parents to eat healthy foods.

"I lost my father three years ago," said Manny Miles, 24, a farm co-manager who has helped shape the internship program. "We grow vegetables here. I tried so many times to bring it home. My dad is so stubborn, so used to eating Spam and corned beef."

At MA'O, the students chase big dreams, from becoming professors and fashion designers to becoming farmers. "My goal is eventually to have Waianae be the hub of all organic agriculture in Hawaii," Miles told the first lady.

Obama stopped by the farm's work shed, where interns were washing herbs and vegetables, and greeted each one. She plucked a sprig of cilantro from the pile that 18-year-old Geri Delacruz-West was washing, took a whiff and popped it into her mouth.

"I wouldn't have gone to college if I never had something like MA'O," Delacruz-West said. "They are like my second family."

The diversified farm grows 35 fruits and vegetables that wind up in the top restaurants on the island as well as on home kitchen tables, through farmers' markets, retailers and subscription boxes. But its mission is broader: to send more Waianae students to college, develop leadership skills that can be applied in any career, and promote food self-sufficiency in Hawaii.

"Our ancestors were organic farmers," said Kamuela Enos, director of social enterprise at MA'O. "This is a way to walk in their footsteps but still survive in a market economy."

Maisha Abbott, 20, told the first lady she came to MA'O for the chance to go to college. "I realized it's bigger than just going to school," she said. "It's about changing our community."

Hawaii News Now video: First lady tours Waianae farm

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