I have a love affair with ʻulu, also known as breadfruit. ʻUlu is a round, football-sized fruit with a bumpy, green exterior and nutritious, starchy interior. When I applied to be a FoodCorps service member, one of the questions on the application was “If you were a vegetable, what would you be and why?” I answered, “While it is somewhere between a fruit and a vegetable, I identify with the humble, local fruit ʻulu because one tree has the capacity to feed and sustain many people and I aspire to serve my community in a similar way.”
I chose to join FoodCorps and teach kids about nutritious food because I’ve seen firsthand how food can transform your body and your life. Growing up in a household with more traditionally Japanese foods, I didn’t eat a lot of dairy or wheat. So when I went to college and began to diversify my diet (you remember what you ate in college?!), I couldn’t understand why I had perpetual stomachaches that never seemed to go away. It took six years until it finally clicked that my dairy and gluten consumption was the culprit. I began to incorporate more whole foods into my diet and the difference was astounding. My stomachaches disappeared, and I felt renewed and whole again. Now I am a firm believer in the healing power of food. This experience motivates me to share this knowledge with others who suffer from diet-related health problems, starting with the littlest ones in our community.
I began to incorporate more whole foods into my diet. [….] Now I am a firm believer in the healing power of food.
The community I serve is on the west side of Oahu, on the Waiʻanae coast, just miles away from where I grew up. Every morning, we are greeted by brilliant sunrises peeking up from behind majestic mountains. The beaches have some of the clearest, turquoise blue water I’ve ever seen. Despite the scenery, our community has some of the highest rates of diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease in the state of Hawai’i. Waiʻanae has the highest population of Native Hawaiians in the world, and, according to a report by the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, Native Hawaiians have significantly higher mortality rates for diabetes and heart disease than the state averages: 130 percent higher for diabetes and 68 percent higher for heart disease.
This wasn’t always the case. The ancient Hawaiians were a thriving, self-sufficient people who created a system of communal farming from the mountains to the ocean called an ahupua`a. However, after missionary contact, the land was privatized, leaving many Native Hawaiians displaced. Cutting them off from traditional farming led to poor nutrition, poor health, and, ultimately, poverty. Today, unhealthy foods are more accessible and affordable for our community members than fresh foods. It is clear that my community needs to reconnect to whole foods grown locally and naturally.
Easily, the most rewarding part of my service is watching when my students get excited about the food they’ve grown with their own hands. One of the programs that I’ve helped to initiate is a healthy snacks program at Makaha Elementary. These lucky students have a 5-acre educational farm next door. Working in the garden is an eye-opening experience for these students. I remember how ecstatic Justin was when he moved a bit of soil away and glimpsed the bright orange deliciousness of a carrot for the first time. The first taste brought even more excitement as he realized he had made his own food.
By growing food together, we are also teaching students the traditional values of lokahi (unity or harmony), laulima (working together), aloha ʻāina (love and respect for the land; being a steward of the land), and malama ʻāina (taking care of/nurturing the land so that it can provide for us and future generations). Though we don’t always grow traditional Hawaiian plants, we grow our food like our ancestors did: we use natural resources wisely; we encourage closed systems through practices like composting; we foster a respectful relationship with the land; and we share the abundance with others.
I remember how ecstatic Justin was when he moved a bit of soil away and glimpsed the bright orange deliciousness of a carrot for the first time.
I also serve at a farm called Mala ʻAi Opio, or MAʻO for short, which means “the youth food garden.” On this 24-acre organic farm in the heart of Lualualei Valley, I give “Farm-2-Fork” tours to students and work with our farm interns to grow a variety of produce, including kale, turnips, cilantro, salad greens, mangoes, bananas, ʻulu and grapefruits. MAʻO is a social enterprise; we pay for students’ full tuition to earn an associate’s degree while they work and manage the farm. These are our future farmers, activists, teachers, and healers, and here at MAʻO they cultivate a loving appreciation for ʻāina (land) and all that it provides for us.
The farm interns are an impressive bunch—you’ll find interns and co-managers with headlamps strapped to their foreheads out in the fields at 5 a.m. harvesting microgreens. They are responsible for harvesting, washing, packing, and delivering produce to our CSA members, local chefs, supermarkets, health food stores, and farmer’s markets. On top of all that, their days off and afternoons are spent at school earning an associate’s degree.
The other day, I showed one of our interns the ʻulu tree and explained how a single tree bears so much nutritious fruit. When mature, ʻulu tastes similar to a potato. I taught him a simple way to prepare the fruit by steaming or boiling it with some salt and this intern was immediately hooked on ʻulu. Later that week, I saw him with a group of interns chowing down on ʻulu. He had found a fruit that had fallen from one of our trees, cooked it, and was sharing it with the group. I even overheard one of the other interns saying, “This is SO good. I could eat it all day!” I felt in that moment that my life was complete. I’m joking, of course, but it is amazing how the simple act of sharing knowledge can start to ripple through a community.
In the end, health is wealth; without our health, we cannot savor all that life has to offer.
There is a Hawaiian proverb that goes, “If you plan for one year, plant kalo (taro). If you plan for 10 years, plant koa (a strong, native tree). If you plan for 100 years, teach the children.” In the end, health is wealth; without our health, we cannot savor all that life has to offer. Positive, socially-aware, sustainable relationships with food have the power to heal, sustain, and strengthen us as individuals, communities, and cultures. As you stoke your students’ fiery love of learning and inquiry, I hope that you also impart that they can be agents of positive social change—even through the simple, fundamental act of eating.