As a Native Hawaiian, Oriana Coleman said she feels a strong connection to the aina, knowing that she, her husband and their nine children are growing some of the same plants on their farmland in Waimanalo that her ancestors did many years ago.
As a big family, it also saves them money. Several years ago, Coleman said, she and her family were houseless. Although it was for a short time, that experience, she said, inspired her ohana to give back. In addition to using the plants they grow, such as kalo, lauae and lau hala, for meals, medicinal purposes and other cultural traditions, they donate whatever they can to community members.
“Our passion has always been to feed the houseless community. And in our mind it’s always about having food available,” she said. “We’ve always had that innate passion in us to grow and take care of the aina. It brings something alive in you that’s already there. You’re making those connections and coming full circle.”
Like other Native Hawaiian families, the Colemans learned to farm through a food assistance program offered by the nonprofit Ke Kula Nui o Waimanalo. Similarly, some community groups are turning to culturally rooted practices, such as aina stewardship and cultural education, to address food insecurity and sustainability among Native Hawaiians. Advocates say teaching Hawaiians to grow their own food helps cut costs, particularly as more families struggle with food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, and connects them to their heritage and ancestors, who cultivated the land and had a special relationship with the aina.
Kirk Deitschman, board president of Ke Kula Nui o Waimanalo, which offers agricultural, youth and other community programs, said the pandemic compounded food insecurities in their community. Instead of organizing traditional food distributions, he said, they wanted to find a more sustainable and long-term solution that would provide Hawaiian families with food for generations.
The nonprofit helps these families set up gardens in their backyards that are fairly easy to maintain, he said. Staff work with them to develop a layout of the space and what kinds of food they’d like to grow. They are currently working with nine families across Oahu, including in Waimanalo and Punaluu, to grow kalo, laupele, ulu, mango, avocado and more. In addition to the farming program, they also help families set up and maintain aquaponics systems, which Deitschman described as “mini ahupuaa,” in their backyards.
“Many of (our families) got put out of jobs and had very limited income, so they couldn’t afford to buy food for their families,” he said. “We’re trying to put that back into their mindset of what our kupuna used to do. They grew their own food.”
Nationally, 1 in 8 people might experience food insecurity this year, according to the national nonprofit Feeding America.
A University of Hawaii report in March found that nearly half of Hawaii families experienced food insecurity. Also, 76% of the families who reported very low food security said they had lost income due to the pandemic. But the data did not provide specific information for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
A 2001 state Department of Health report found that more than 1 in 4 Native Hawaiians experienced food insecurity, compared with 1 in 10 Japanese or Chinese. Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders were also at the highest risk compared with other ethnic groups of living in food-insecure households, according to DOH.
To address food insecurity and other impacts of the pandemic, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, through its first-ever COVID-19 Impact and Response Grants, recently awarded a total of $1.77 million to Ke Kula Nui o Waimanalo and several other groups.
One of them is the Hamakua Youth Center on Hawaii island. Director of Operations Jeannette Soon-Ludes said the OHA grant helps them tie their existing food assistance program with cultural education. The nonprofit’s kokua bags program gives free food and ingredients to about 85 families, most of whom are Native Hawaiian and live in low- to moderate-income households. In addition to that, they have enrolled about 35 families who receive food assistance into their education program, which teaches keiki about the cultural significance of Hawaiian and other food included in the kokua bags and how to cook with them.
“We didn’t necessarily want to just provide food as a handout, but food as a way to really connect with and support the family,” Soon-Ludes said. “We want them to start to understand this is where our food comes from, and this is what our food means.”
Kulia Kauhi Tolentino-Potter, founder of the Hawaii island-based nonprofit Pohaha i ka Lani, which received an OHA grant, said they also pair their food deliveries with aina stewardship and cultural education, such as learning about a place through moolelo and mele and setting up backyard gardens. Most of the families they serve, she said, are also Native Hawaiian and struggle with food insecurity.
As for Oriana Coleman, she agreed that working the land with her family while connecting with their culture has been key to their success.
“We’re excited for (our farmland) to keep flourishing and to grow alongside of it,” she said. “This is what we were meant to do.”
Jayna Omaye covers ethnic and cultural affairs and is a corps member of Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.
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