Creating Leaders of Environmental Stewardship

An opinion piece by Kau’i Salzman

In Hawai’i, our ‘Aina, our land, is most precious to our people. Yet in today’s society, people have never been so disconnected to their ‘aina. So much so that 85% of our food and goods are imported, leaving a large carbon footprint behind, and environmental consequences. It seems we’ve forgotten that this land once provided a sufficient, sustainable economy before modern colonization and westernization of the Hawaiian Islands.

As humans focused on technological advancements and innovations, the principles of the ancient ‘ahupua’a system- where nature’s well-being was included in economic and business decisions, disappeared. The ‘aina became a tool for humans to use at will, providing resources which could be ravaged without consequence. We know now more than ever, that there are consequences, and we are working to rebuild our relationship with nature and our ‘aina so that we may grow a more sustainable, local economy that is self-sufficient once again. One of the ways in which we can inspire and motivate people to take action during a time of crisis, is to merely bring awareness of the subject and hope people will care. Another more empowering way, a way that will bring about the motivation we desire, is to educate through hands-on experiences. On O’ahu, Kokua Hawaii Foundation, and MA’O Organic Farms, are doing just that. These two organizations are providing our ‘opio, our youth, with practical, hands-on learning with local sustainable food and environmental education.

MA’O is an acronym for Mala ‘Ai ‘Opio Community Food Systems Initiative[1], founded in 2001, under its non-profit organization, Wai’anae Community Redevelopment Corporation (WCRC). Mala ‘Ai ‘Opio is translated to “youth food garden,” as MA’O believes that our youth and our ‘aina are our most important assets in the community of Waianae and important to their mission of restoring ancestral knowledge of the ‘aina and creating a resilient and sustainable local economy.

Their leadership programs, MA’O YLT (youth leadership training), The Kauhale YLT, Ho’owaiwai YLT, Kauhale high school internships and Mohala externships provide job experience through working on MA’O Organic Farms while earning college credits towards AA program at Leeward Community College as well as a Bachelor’s degree at UH West ‘Oahu in sustainable agriculture. Students in the program are mostly students and graduates of Waianae High School.

Kokua Hawaii Foundation’s ‘Aina in Schools program[2] also provides empowering lessons for our youth through implementing gardening, composting, nutrition, waste reduction and agricultural literacy lessons to elementary students across ‘Oahu. ‘Aina in Schools is a farm-to-school initiative started in 2006, aimed to connect children to their local food sources and encourage environmental stewardship. Teachers, students, and parents learn how to start a school garden, create a healthy meal from their garden, propose better cafeteria food, host a recycling drive, and more. Grants are also available to help schools pay for field trips to farms, bring local chefs to their classrooms for cooking demonstrations, purchase gardening supplies, or other requests. KHF also provides workshops for educators to help implement lessons in their school and classrooms. There are about 8-10 staff members in KHF, but hundreds of volunteers who make this foundation successful.

In the 2015-2016 academic year, they’ve reached 3,694 students through garden and composting lessons, 2,156 students through nutrition lessons, and 1,617 students experienced cooking lessons from local chefs. I’ve recently attended ‘Aina in Schools’ educators field trip to Kahuku Elementary (pictures included below) to learn about gardening, good nutrition, and composting, and to hear a few teachers talk about what they’re currently doing in their classroom. We were able to plant, compost, and blend a healthy green smoothie made up of some of the ingredients from the garden. A field trip to Kahuku Farms was also included in this workshop, where we learned what students would learn on a field trip to a local farm. After an informative tour of the grounds, our hands got dirty, as we were able to plant some greens in the front gardening area. This type of practical learning is vital to empowering keiki to get involved in their local community. To literally feel the connection between nature and self is the beginning of environmental stewardship.

In building a more inclusive, local economy, people need to feel that they matter, that they have a voice in their community, and that what they do can make a difference. Programs such as KHF’s ‘Aina in Schools and MA’O’s Youth Leadership Training give young people that opportunity. Having responsibility and involvement in community gives people a sense of dignity and in turn, motivation to create positive change. These organizations serve as great models towards a more sustainable Hawaii and need to continue to be supported and recognized by other local businesses and organizations.