Science of Symbiosis
Food and Farming / At the turn of the millennium, while working for the US Census, Kukui Maunakea-Forth saw the poverty of her Nanakuli-Waianae community translated into statistics as her husband, Gary Maunakea-Forth, sent 15-year-olds to McDonald’s for their first jobs through his work at City & County Workforce Development.
“Superfluous of how bad the food is, to send someone there when they’re young is like a bullet in the head,” Gary recalls. “Seeing the poverty getting worse really irritated us, so we came up with this idea for community-based economic development. We have a history of being an agricultural community and wanted to maintain that. So we set out to couple a non-profit with a business because bottom line: we needed to create jobs for the community.”
Three years of research produced a business plan, which led almost directly to three grants that allowed Gary and Kukui to lease their first five acres from Community of Christ Church in Waianae. With additional grants and support from local and national organizations, Gary and Kukui have increased acreage over the years. Mao is now a 24-acre farm, celebrating 10 years in business.
Although Waianae was once a self-sufficient region able to produce adequate amounts of food while managing its land and water resources in a highly sustainable manner, it is currently the state’s most food insecure community with diet-related health problems. In 2008, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s report, “Food Self-Sufficiency in Hawaii,” defined food security as encompassing three major elements: availability (supply), access (household purchasing power), and utilization (nutritional safety and quality).
The report states that 85-90 percent of Hawaii’s food is currently imported, which makes residents particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and global events that would disrupt shipping and food supply. Just three decades ago, Hawaii was self-sufficient in milk. Today, three dairies remain and the average price for a gallon of milk is $7, due to increasing oil prices.
While Hawaii’s land is ideal for double and triple cropping, (exemplified by the Native Hawaiian subsistence economy within traditional ahupua’a land systems), modern Hawaii has had a dependent economy based on an industrial agriculture practice called monocropping–high-yield production of a single crop year after year on the same land (i.e. sugar cane and pineapple plantations). In addition to damaged soil and increased dependence on fertilizers and pesticides, monocropping dominates viable farmland and essentially creates a society unable to feed itself or even produce basic goods necessary for daily life.
Today, genetically modified seed farms are Hawaii’s largest agricultural sector, valued at $223 million in 2010. Hawaii has the largest number of experimental biotech crop trials in the country. Make no mistake: bioengineered seed firms are the new sugar barons of Hawaii.
“Any small farmer wishing to engage in the economy is up against a host of established brokers, agribusiness conglomerates and politicians who act as agents for them and who have a vested interest in prolonging their own profits and goals,” says Carlos Andrade, Director of Hawaiian Studies at UH–Manoa.
Gary agrees that farming in Hawaii is a land use issue, which makes it political. “The type of agriculture that brings in the most money is supported, and right now GMO seed production is what brings in the most money,” he says. “But seed will leave just like sugar and pineapple did when they find it too expensive to export from here. Yet, it’s really hard for small farmers here because of the short-term leases that are difficult to finance.”
Mao is currently generating $12,000 in produce per week and has been increasing production an average of 15 percent over the last five years. They supply a diverse market of natural food stores, conventional groceries, local restaurants, farmers markets, and 125 subscribers who buy a weekly CSA box.
However, organic food production is merely the foundation for Mao’s grander strategy, which targets five critical areas of need: out-of-school youth, sustainable economic development, agriculture, health, and Hawaiian culture. Youth leadership and social enterprise development is the core objective.
When you buy produce from Mao, you help pay a college student’s tuition. Mao intern Michelle Arasato, 21, is a full-time student at Leeward Community College where she will obtain an Associate of Arts degree with a Subject Certificate in Community Food Systems. In addition to her tuition waver, she earns a monthly stipend for her work on the farm, learns how to communicate effectively, participates in cultural protocol workshops, learns how to manage her money in financial education classes, and builds her Individual Development Account, which is a savings account that for every $1 she saves, Mao matches with $2.
Arasato started interning when she was 17 and had a rocky start in the program. “I was that youth where I was always ready to go if someone looked like they had a problem with me,” she says. “But now I see, instead of being at each other’s throats– channel that energy into making our community better. We need bangers. We need people who want to fight. But we need them to fight for our lands, for our education, for our families. This is our responsibility.”
Kamuela Enos, Mao’s Education Resource Specialist, describes the trans-generational poverty that has contributed to recent, learned dysfunction and hopelessness in the Waianae community. “This land was considered marginal by plantation owners so this is where Hawaiians were pushed to and over the years these communities became pockets of poverty,” Enos explains. “Then the issues of these generations of economically marginalized families become patterns and youth start to identify. Our culture is less Hawaiian and more ‘poor American’ culture–all about fighting and drinking. The Heineken bottle is probably more Hawaiian now than ahupuaa. Spam musubi is more Hawaiian now than pai ‘ai. This is the world we grew up in.”
Enos helps Waianae youth who come to the farm unlearn negative behaviors that result from oppression and poverty, reconnecting them to what they are truly heirs to. “Our ancestors could not have been this dysfunctional and create the abundance they did for thousands of years,” he states.
“Hawaiian culture is a science of symbiosis, of how you understand yourself as not separate from the landscape but indelibly part of a biosystem, and you live within those means. Our culture is totally relevant and central to the context of the 21st century challenges of sustainable resources, food sufficiency, and creating jobs in the community. We are working with the next generation to create true economic development–a self-sustaining market.”
Mao strives for a food sovereignty that depends less on imported goods and more self-determination in food integrity, education and creating jobs. They have changed the landscape of organic farming and youth empowerment over the last 10 years and are likely to spend the next 10 showing us what a healthier, informed, food-secure community looks like.