Hawaii's Top Chefs On Ma'o Farm: It's Good For Everybody

Waianae Organic Farm Puts Youth To Work, Offers A Future

Hawaii's Top Chefs On Ma'o Farm: It's Good For Everybody

Tucked in the verdant Lualualei Valley is the 5-acre, organic, non-profit farm known throughout Waianae as "Ma'o". Most of you are probably scrunching your face, pondering "There is a verdant valley in Waianae?" Yes, there is. In the same West Oahu community that claims the island's highest crime and unemployment rates, is a pastoral, green swath of land teeming with fruits and veggies that find their way to the kitchens of Alan Wong's, Nobu, Kona Brewing Company, Town and the Ihilani Resort. Pretty cool, you say? It's just the tip of the iceberg. Ma'o is tilled, sown, irrigated, packed and delivered by Waianae youth in exchange for college tuition, a shot at a career in business management-and a future.

Ma'o is the acronym for Mala 'Ai 'Opio, which translates to "Youth Food Garden." Founded five years ago by husband and wife Gary and Kukui Maunakea-Forth, the entire premise was to reshape West Oahu's landscape, literally, as well as the potential for Waianae's youth. A teacher and community leader, Kukui was very familiar (and unimpressed) with the career offerings to youth raised in Waianae: She was raised there herself.

"There was simply nothing for this huge population of kids coming out of high school to do in Waianae," said Kukui. "It was either construction, of which there are only so many jobs, live on the street or move," she added.

Kukui meet soon-to-be husband Gary, who had moved to Oahu from New Zealand to play rugby, yet was a very involved community activist.

Pooling their resources, the two began looking for some way to give back-which would affected as many people within the community as possible. One fact stuck in both their heads: Waianae had the highest diabetes rates in the entire island chain, most likely caused by the poor food options throughout the coastal village. The creation of a food-secure, sustainable community that could serve as an island-wide model was their answer. One in which students between 17 and 25 could come for one and two-year sessions to learn organic farming (and responsibility) in exchange for a 2-year associate of the arts degree at Leeward Community College.

"Most of the kids that come through Ma'o need our support to not only get in the [university's] door, but the tools to get through the program," shared Ma'o director of education Summer Shimabukuro.

Currently, Ma'o brings approximately 15 kids from Waianae to the farm three days per week to tend to a growing list of produce that has become the top-sought product in markets like Down to Earth, Kokua, the Kapiolani Community College farmer's market, and possibly the new Whole Foods (details were being hammered out at press time). Arugula, mesclin greens, red Russian kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, onions, tangerines, limes, mangoes, bananas, cilantro and a dozen others bear the Ma'o tag. And, once a week, Ma'o sends their "empowered" youth to Waianae Intermediate and Waianae High School to mentor kids who may be interested in joining the program in time. From their own pockets, the Maunakea-Forth's have sent kids to worldwide organic food and farming conferences over the past 3 years, including trips to Canada, Michigan, New York, New Zealand and Italy.

The 3rd Annual Ma'o fundraiser for much needed tuition funds will take place September 2 at Downtown Restaurant, in the Hawaii State Art Museum. A better cause we cannot think of: Sustainable, organic farming on Oahu that puts kids to work and offers them college education that otherwise would not be possible" I think you have the time. If not, make it. You'll feel better. Promise.

Ma'o dinner and fundraiser includes culinary delights by the chefs of Town and Downtown, in addition to other "culinary friends of Ma'o"; live entertainment and an auction.

Tax-deductible tickets are $125 per person; tables of 8 are $2,000.

Go to www.waianaeorganic.com for more information and ticketing, or call (808) 696-5569.