MA’O Farms: revitalizing a way of life

On the far west side of O’ahu which people have long associated with crime, homelessness, substance abuse, poverty and negativity, a new program has taken root that is reconnecting Hawaiian students with the ‘aina and their culture, providing them with an education and molding them to become leaders of Waianae, Hawaii and the nation.

The program is called MA’O (an acronym for “Mala Ai Opio”, which means “the youth garden” according to the Hawaii Business website).

They are the public face of the non-profit Waianae Community Redevelopment Corp., and also represent “an important path to the future of small-scale farming in post-plantation Hawaii.”

MA‘O also operates youth gardens at Waianae High and Waianae Intermediate schools. To fund its operations, the non-profit corporation applies for grants and relies on outside funding. MA’O is a profitable farm operation, its produce is sold to local markets, and its net profits are used to offset the costs of their other programs, expand, and make the program more sustainable — by not relying on only one source of funding.

The 24.5-acre certified organic MA’O farm was Mrs. Michelle Obama’s first stop on her latest trip to Hawaii. U.S. President Barack Obama and the First Lady arrived two Fridays ago, to host the APEC meeting of Asia Pacific leaders in Hawai’i.

During introductions, Mrs. Obama, 48, said she was honored to be at MA’O with all that’s been going on at the farm. The First Lady also talked about health and childhood obesity saying the White House is working to eliminate childhood obesity in this generation. She says young people must be taught early to live healthy lives and make healthy food choices. Mrs. Obama noted that is difficult for underserved communities to eat healthy, as they may not have access to vegetables.

Students took the First Lady on a tour of the farm and then sat down with her to discuss youth leadership, engagement and community responsibility as well as access to healthy, affordable food.

The First Lady listened intently while students beamed, some cried and all were very eager and excited to share their success stories with her.

Cheryse Sana, 22 is a standout intern at MA’O, maintaining the highest GPA of all the interns. She had the honor of sitting right next to the First Lady during the roundtable discussion.

Sana, a 2007 Waianae High School graduate says she has lived in Waianae valley all her life.

“I always wanted to go to college,” Sana told the First Lady.

She holds an associate degree from Leeward Community College and is now in her second year at UHM. She is studying education and Hawaiian Studies and wants to obtain a doctorate in education and teach in her community.

 “Farming is not the hot thing to do,” the First Lady joked eliciting laughter from the students. “It’s not like you’re hanging with your boys and say, ‘I wanna go farm’.”

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Mrs. Obama said young people faced similar issues as those faced by youth in Waianae. There were limited opportunities to learn. She commended the MA’O students for taking the program seriously, for educating and engaging each other and helping each other deal with challenges faced by their families.

“Go to school, stay in and pass it on,” she advised.

M’AO grows between 35-45 types of produce which are sold to a number of restaurants, grocery stores and farmers markets. The farm feeds 600 people a day, the First Lady was told.

Ed Kenney, Chef of Town restaurant, a MA’O Farms supporter, purchases the majority of his restaurant’s produce from the farm and regularly visits with students. At the First Lady’s request, Chef Kenney prepared the luncheon for APEC leaders’ spouses at Kualoa held earlier that day. The menu used all local ingredients from MA’O.

Waianae is one of the poorest places in Hawaii. The farm is run by Waianae youth, students and graduates of Waianae High School who participate in the Youth Leadership Training (YLT) internship. Interns work the land for three years and in exchange receive a full tuition waiver at a local community college plus a monthly stipend.

Kuuleilani “Kuu” Samson, a YLT graduate said he once saw farming as “old school” and took it for granted. He says now, people are eating too much fast food, pointing out that “just to being able to eat the food that you grow” was a great feat.

Among the challenges he faces is getting his family to understand that eating healthy is important. His relatives opt for corned beef and SPAM.

“I have tried so many times and it takes a lot to get it to work,” he added. Samson said they are taking “baby steps” such as a sautéed beans recipe that was well received by the family.

 “When I tell people about the program and where it is, they always say ‘Waianae? Nothing good ever happens in Waianae,’ said Ruth Dewater, 19, a non-Hawaiian student who was born and raised in Washington state.

The appropriate answer would be, “and why not Waianae?” The young men and women who have earned associate degrees in the program are utterly excited with the direction their lives have taken, most now working on their undergraduate degrees at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, some planning to attain their masters and doctorate degrees.

Mrs. Obama told the interns, “You know how to lift people up… and the responsibility you all now have is to embrace it and I think you all have been doing that. Just keep it up.”

Mrs. Obama says she is tending her own garden at home and that the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services are promoting gardening by offering grants to schools and communities. More resources must be developed she added. The First Lady has been receiving so many letters from community groups who are planting gardens and changing the way they eat.

The schools that have implemented programs similar to MA’O have doubled according to the First Lady, who said MA’O is among the ambassadors of these types of programs. She suggests YLT graduates work on identifying schools in the area to mentor. She says we must look at how we are building our communities with playgrounds, putting chefs in schools and work on changing menus.

The students thanked the First Lady with a Hawaiian song of “mahalo” before her departure.

“The community must support with coalitions of people made up of the different factions of the community,” said Mrs. Obama.“Land in Hawaii is incredibly expensive. We have to start —starting small.”

Near the MA’O entrance a group of women, men and youngsters, community leaders, had assembled holding signs reading “Aloha Michelle” and “We love Waianae.”

MA’O is under the direction of Waianae native Kamuela (Kamu) Joseph Nui Enos, director of social enterprise for MA’O. He is Commissioner on the White House Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islanders. Enos holds a bachelor’s in Hawaiian studies and a master’s in urban and regional planning.

To learn more about MA’O, go to


Farming is still a big part of life in the Samoan islands, markets in Samoa and American Samoa bustling day in and day out, the busiest times are on the weekends when families prepare for Sunday toana’i or brunch.

Faletuiga inquired with several people at MA’O Farms if there are any Samoan students enrolled in the program. I was told there are Samoan students, but they were not present.

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