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Decolonizing Diets

Local movements to reconnect with the land hopes to improve health for indigenous communities.

By: Eunica Escalante

2 May 2019

Kiana Tector wakes up before the sun rises and makes her morning commute deep into Waianae. Her day starts earlier than most 20-year-olds.

She drives past dozens of homeless tents dotting the beachfront and the empty lots filled with rusting abandoned cars. Eventually, she turns into a dirt road that leads her to paradise–or at least what Tector thinks paradise should be.

Tector is one of a dozen college students that works within Ma'o Organic Farms’ farm-to-fork program. Instead of shuffling to classes like her classmates at Leeward Community College, where Tector is one month away from graduating with an associate degree in Health and Dietetics, she puts on her boots and marches on to Ma'o’s 21-acre field.

Three times a week, she spends six-hour shifts planting, harvesting, cleaning, and packaging crops that will then be shipped to Whole Foods, farmers’ markets, and discerning restaurants throughout Oahu. 

It’s hard work and something that Tector couldn’t imagine herself doing two years ago.

“I just thought that it wasn’t for me,” she said. “I thought it would be all hard, manual labor all day. And I didn’t want that.”

She wanted to do something with a purpose. She assumed it would be just like every other job she had: meaningless tasks that only serve to make a profit for the company without any regard for their workers.


So when her counselor gave her the internship’s application form, she left it blank—until the next semester when the counselor forced her to fill it in.


At the time, Tector thought nothing of it. But after the first day of summer training, Tector quickly realized that her time at Ma’o was going to be different.


“There was just so much intentionality in everything that they did,” she said. “They really took the time to listen to everyone and talked to us about what we wanted to do and why we wanted to be here.”


If Tector wanted a purpose, she had found it at Ma’o.


Since opening their doors in 2001, Ma’o has made a commitment to supplying organic, non-GMO produce. What began as an operation limited only to neighborhood farmer’s markets has today grown into a statewide enterprise, stocking local produce for Whole Foods and ABC Stores.

They are also part of a growing movement within local communities that encourages consumers, particularly those of Hawaiian and Pacific Islander descent, to re-familiarize themselves with their food and where it comes from.


Waianae, where Ma’o farms is located, has the world’s highest concentration of Native Hawaiian residents. Out of its over 13,000 population, 30.9 percent are Native Hawaiian. Native Hawaiians, in turn, have one of the highest rates of Type 2 diabetes in the state, second only to Filipinos, according to the state Department of Health.


Many scholars, like John A. Burns School of Medicine researchers Ruben Juarez and Alika Maunakea, attribute this phenomenon to decades of over-processed, high carb and high fats diets—a far cry from the plant-based foods that pre-contact Hawaiians were used to.


“Nowadays, many of the foods that they eat are the ones that have been linked to cultivating poor health,” said Juarez. “Because they no longer have access to the land and fresh produce like they used to, they have to rely on over-processed products.”


Bernice Musrasrik is the program coordinator for Roots Café, a Kalihi-based program that promotes a return to indigenous ways of growing and consuming food. She says the diets of Native Hawaiians prior to Westernization were simple in contrast to today.

“Most nights they only had a meat, usually fish or sometimes a lean pork, and then a starch,” Musrasrik said. “They led very healthy lifestyles.”


Native Hawaiian diets used to be comprised of high complex carbohydrates, fiber and low fat, according to Musrasrik. Starches like breadfruit, sweet potato and taro would be combined with the fish catch of the day or boar.


With colonization and the rise of industries like sugar and pineapple, land was gobbled up by enterprises, forcing communities to go to the store for goods that they otherwise would have been able to grow or hunt themselves, according to Musrasrik.


Today, their starch staples have been replaced with rice, which is more accessible and cheaper to buy. Pork and beef has replaced the healthier standard of fish, dominating what we now consider as traditional Hawaiian dishes like lau-lau and kalua pork, according to Musrasrik.


“It’s important that we try to return back to our ancestral way of consuming food because, honestly, they were healthier than us,” says Dorian Kalikolehuaolokelani Cabanting, Roots’ cultural community specialist.


Cabanting hopes local organizations that promote indigenous foodways can help communities return to their ancestors’ healthier habits.


Like Ma'o, Roots Café is providing increased accessibility to fresh, local produce that these populations are missing from their diets. Other than building a community garden in Kuhio Park Terrace, the state’s largest low-income housing project, Roots Café also has a thousand-acre farm in Kalihi Valley that grows crops that pre-contact Native Hawaiians would have grown.

With these increased access to locally grown produce, the organizers of Roots Café and Ma'o hope to reintroduce healthier options back into these communities.


“We wanted to see whether there was a connection between working the ‘aina, or the land, and one’s ‘ola, or health,” Juarez said.


Over the course of a year, Juarez and Maunakea teamed up with Ma'o, observing the interns’ change in health.


“What we found was that when these students work the land, almost every day, and they become educated about the value of where their food comes from, that greatly influences their relationship to their health,” Juarez said.


Through measuring factors like body mass index, blood pressure, and gut microbiome, the research shows that 60 percent of Ma'o interns have greatly reduced their risk of diabetes. The results are being attributed to the intern’s increased connection to the land.

By working in the fields every other day, Tector says that she and the other interns were able to practice physical activity that they otherwise would not have done. She added that working in close proximity to the land has reinvented her understanding of food.


“I am so much more aware of where my food comes from now,” Tector said. “I can see the difference that organic, locally produced, non-GMO produce has.”


It’s an understanding that Tector is extending to her family.


It was recently her father’s birthday. Tector took on the task of preparing the birthday dinner herself, sourcing products from local markets and produce she had helped grow at Ma'o. The result was a menu that was wholly locally grown and produced.


“We had wild Hawaiian deer from Forage Hawaii and vegetables and starches from Ma'o,” Tector said. “It was very good.”


But physical health is not the only factor that Tector feels is important.


“Coming here, I feel more connected to my culture because I understand how my ancestors did things before, you know, colonization,” she says. “And that makes me happy and I think when you’re happy, you’re healthy.”


Interns working the land.


Tector next to the altar.


A field of kale at MA’O Organic Farms.

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