MA’O’s Marvelous Mission

MaoFarm

If we had come upon the website with no introduction maybe it would have looked like just another pretty organic farm in a tropical paradise.

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But there are people involved, and it is a pleasant surprise to learn from Dakota Kim’s story Youth Farm In Hawaii Is Growing Food And Leaders how those people bring that place further to life. There is a mission worth reading about:

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Cheryse Sana, farm co-manager, cuts a banana blossom off a tree at MA’O Organic Farms. Dakota Kim

A tight circle of teenagers is deep in conversation — not about movies or apps, but about … vegetables.

It’s 7 a.m. at MA’O Organic Farms, part of 24 acres nestled in an emerald mountain-ringed valley just two miles from Oahu’s west shore. Under a hot sun that bathes this idyllic breadbasket, college-aged farmers harvest tons of mangoes, bananas, mizuna (mustard greens) and taro every month for the island of Oahu.

The farm’s atmosphere bubbles with enthusiastic lightheartedness, its college interns quipping across the rows that they can beat their neighbors’ harvesting speed. But a calm falls over the group as they move from joking around to talking more seriously. A circle forms under an open pavilion, and a young woman speaks.

“We got 21 more orders for parsley because our stuff is great,” Junell Fonokalafi, a student intern from Leeward Community College, says proudly. The organic bunches of parsley will go to top Honolulu restaurants like Chef Ed Kenney’s Mahina and Suns, and also direct to consumers at markets like Whole Foods and Foodland Farms, where few might know that teenagers are growing their organic produce.

“No panic, organic,” everyone chants in approval after each speaker, clapping twice.

“You guys only took an hour to harvest and had three hours to catch up with weeds and complete the order,” Scott Kaeo, a farm intern from Leeward Community College, congratulates the group. “But last week, there was a bunch of food and stuff on the floor after lunch. Y’all are eating and missing your mouth.” Everyone laughs, but it’s noted: You had better clean up after yourself, because no one is just a carefree kid at MA’O.

A successful indie farm is a high bar, but MA’O’s mission is harder. Meaning mala(garden) ʻai (food) ʻopio (youth), or youth food garden, MA’O seeks to grow leaders heartier than its legendary staple of ulu, or breadfruit. Waianae’s residents are mostly native Hawaiians, and the area ranks among the poorest communities in the state of Hawaii, with a median household income of $58,807 and 25.9 percent of its population living in poverty. Some 9.5 percent of residents are unemployed and only 9.2 percent possess a college degree.

MA’O founder Kukui Maunakea-Forth, a native Hawaiian who grew up on the knee of her homeland-dwelling grandmother, wanted to create a system where Waianae’s youth could learn cooperation, accountability and empowerment, while receiving free college tuition for what MA’O’s leaders call their “sweat equity.” In 2001, she and her husband, Gary Maunakea-Forth, signed a 25-year lease for five acres in the Lualualei Valley and set up a successful farm and training program. MA’O’s other 19 acres are owned by a non-profit called Wai’anae Community Re-development Corp.

The 30 interns, who come from Leeward Community College and the University of Hawaii West Oahu, commit to what seems like an eternity for a teenager: two and a half years of work…

Read the whole story here.

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