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O Makuʻu Ke Kahua Community Center is Building Community and Passing Down Traditional Food Knowledge on Māla Ho`oulu `Ike

The O Makuʻu Ke Kahua Community Center provides a community hub, as well as a farmer’s market and educational resource for farming, advocacy, arts, youth, and Native Hawaiian culture.

Māla Ho`oulu `Ike is located in the district of Puna on the east coast of the island of Hawai’i. With Puna being one of the fastest growing districts on the island, and with Hawai’i being the most expensive place to live in the nation, the work of Māla Hoʻoulu ʻIke to share knowledge, unite the community, and pass down traditional foods has become more and more important. Now, with support through First Nations’ 2021 Gather Food Sovereignty Grant, this rural nonprofit is hosting a new curriculum of workshops designed to help community members invest in their own food systems, feed their families, and thrive through challenges.

Meeting a need on Māla Ho`oulu `Ike

Puna is in one of the most rural areas in Hawai’i, with some of the lowest income communities on the island — 30% of households have incomes below the poverty level, and 26% receive SNAP food assistance. Food costs in Hawai’i are 61% higher than those of the rest of the nation. Adding to this, 80% to 90% of the island’s food must be shipped in, leaving residents vulnerable to on-island food shortages.

Amidst this landscape, the need to enhance food growing skills and increase the availability of healthy foods is a necessity, and that is where the O Makuʻu Ke Kahua Community Center comes in.

“What we have always been is a central meeting place,” says O Makuʻu Ke Kahua Community Center Executive Director with Lauae Kekahuna.

Through the Mālama Hāloa program, ʻOMKKCC is passing down traditional food knowledge to the next generation.

Indeed, as a non-profit organization located in Puna, the O Makuʻu Ke Kahua Community Center (ʻOMKKCC) provides not only a community hub, but also a farmer’s market and educational resource for farming, advocacy, arts, youth, and Native Hawaiian culture. ʻOMKKCC was developed in 2019 to continue the voyage approved and set forth by the founders of Makuʻu Farmers Association in 1997.

It is a mission that is essential every day on Puna, but especially so during natural disasters, including COVID-19. The community center exists to help families sustain themselves so they do not have to rely on stores and they can rely on the land. When the pandemic hit last year, Kekahuna says the center — as an open-air market consisting of 10-foot by 10-foot tents — was one of the only places on the island to stay open to serve community members.

The events of 2020 only underscored the need to bring people together through ʻOMKKCC and to make sure community members have the knowledge and confidence to survive when everything around them shuts down. To do this, ʻOMKKCC is continuing plans to create a permanent building for the center (the original structure was destroyed in a 2018 earthquake) and to formally teach community members how to grow and sustain their own food sources.

Education for Inspiration

To advance the education component, in 2021, the organization applied for and received funding through First Nations’ Gather Food Sovereignty Grant program to create and implement the Mālama Hāloa program.

With a mission to indulge and inspire the community of Hawaiian Homesteaders and others with agricultural opportunities to grow an educational mindset of a self-sustainable life for their ʻohana and the community, the program involves providing a series of workshops teaching traditional and customary practices that their ancestors used to grow kalo — an ancestral food and ancestor to Native Hawaiians.

Specifically, through the workshops ʻOMKKCC is providing a lifecycle approach that integrates chants and prayers, legends, place- and region-placed planting, care and harvesting practices, and cooking classes for family members.

Structured by the growing cycle for kalo, which is eight to 12 months, the workshops provide learners with opportunities to engage with all parts of growing from preparation to planting, to caring for plants, harvesting, and bringing kalo to the table. The timeline is designed around traditional planting practices, seasonal practices with weather changes, and ancestral observances.

Kekahuna explains that the focus on kalo is in line with the Hawaiian creation story and the story of Haloa. In this simplified version of the story, two lovers had a child who was stillborn. They cremated the baby, named Haloa, and put the ashes in the ground. What grew from the spot was the leafy plant, kalo. “This is why our kalo is precious,” says Kekahuna. “The story tells us that if we care for the plant, it will grow and take care of us. Whatever we put in the ground, we will take care of, like we would take care of a baby.”

Every part of the kalo plant can be used, and one plant from one family’s garden can provide food for two to three households of seven people.

In addition to its cultural significance is the plant’s efficiency. Kalo can be frozen, steamed, or boiled, yielding up to 10 different dishes. Every part of the plant can be used, and one plant from one family’s garden can provide food for two to three households of seven people. It is sustainable, and it is delicious, which makes it all the more beautiful, Kekahuna says.

Still, a lot of people don’t know about the powerful plant. “Everyone has lost that. Some families still have the culture aspect and know the importance of kalo, but no longer know how to produce it. We’ve migrated from growing it to purchasing it, Kekahuna says. “The result is people are intimidated to start using it again.”

Through the training, ʻOMKKCC aims to teach learners the system, lesson by lesson, to eliminate the fear. To that end, the series focuses on intergenerational learning of the entire planting process, including:

  • Three workshops on kalo preparation and traditional intercropping techniques, introducing families to Native Hawaiian land and spirituality;
  • Three workshops on planting;
  • 14 workshops on fertilization and crop maintenance;
  • Three workshops on harvesting and cleaning practices and sharing of cuttings with the broader community; and
  • Three workshops on recipes with food sharing opportunities.

“Through the grant, we’re able to provide all the small-scale supplies and lay the groundwork so families can grow kalo on their own, however they choose,” Kekahuna says. “We start small so that it’s more accessible and folks don’t get overwhelmed. We just want to inspire them and keep them driving forward.”

Education for Sustainability

Kekahuna shares that it is a focus for the center that everyone who leaves the workshops has an education on how to plant, care for, and harvest kalo, and that every o’hana will be able to learn the processes from start to finish.

It is their hope that families will be able to duplicate growing process in their own family gardens and be able to contribute to a community Native garden that will promote self-sustainability, create confident farmers, and provide a source that links everyone to the Native Hawaiian culture and perpetuates community resilience.

This garden can help meet other goals of the community center:

  • Providing food for not only ʻOMKKCC families but also the overall community
  • Expanding the farmer’s market to enhance the local food economy (even when disasters strike)
  • Connecting vendors and farmers to improve food access
  • Improving people’s palettes so they have a taste for traditional foods
  • Keeping elders and youth involved. “Our history kept us from learning about our culture, and we are still fighting for our language and land,” says Kekahuna. “We don’t want anyone to feel a disconnect so we want to keep everyone on the same page.”
  • Improving processes. Kekahuna says, “When we break it down, farmers have so many rules, permits, intimidating costs, and regulations to be a business. We want to make better processes for people so they don’t run into hurdles, and so that we all are better able to sustain ourselves.”
  • And finally, preparing for the unknown. Kekahuna says that whether it’s in the face of colonization, a hurricane, an earthquake, or a pandemic, Native peoples must continue to be resilient, and that means having the ability to grow and share food.

At ʻOMKKCC, all visitors not only learn about the power of kalo as a traditional food, but also gain a sense of family.

Moreover, the program is bolstering the position of ʻOMKKCC as a central gathering place — a family-based, homestead-based organization that is recognized on a national level but grows only through the communication of “coconut wireless.” “We are not trying to gain tourists. We just want to feed our community, she says.

Kekahuna concludes that it’s important that all visitors and learners who come to ʻOMKKCC gain a sense of family. “That’s what’s most valuable to us,” she says. “That everyone wants to come back to our o’hana. That families are always returning, and that we can keep going for our next generation.”