Positive Outcomes

  • A program participant who started at a weight of over 300 pounds was able to lose 35 pounds. After losing more than 10% of his body weight, he is projected to have extended his life span by 6 to 7 more years.
  • The Hāna community is changing the conversation from disease and deficit to health and well-being.
  • 385 participants enrolled in the program.
  • Of the 320 Native Hawaiians enrolled, 100% have improved eating habits and increased physical activity.

Photo: Huaka Park
Happy faces and healthy keiki. – Photos: Courtesy Ma Ka Ha¯na Ka ‘Ike

Along the Maui coastline on the east slopes of Haleakalā near Hāna School, 15-year-old Huaka Park is learning how to restore land once used to grow taro, as a participant in Hāna Ola, a project supported by a Office of Hawaiian Affairs grant. Conducted as a partnership between the Hāna-based group Ma Ka Hāna Ka ‘Ike and Queen’s Medical Center, the goal of the grant is to reduce obesity and other cardiovascular diseases among Native Hawaiians.

“There is something transformational happening here. It’s very foundational. It’s generational,” Huaka’s mother Lehua Park told me. Lehua is a teacher in the school, and her keiki are among her students.

“They have done amazing things. My children have learned in a way that makes sense to them,” she said.

The project increases this rural community’s capacity to revitalize its health, nutrition and wellbeing by creating education, physical activity and culturally relevant, community-based programs. Community members are invited to engage in a range of ‘āina-centric activities — lo‘i restoration; organic agriculture; kupuna assisted living; ku‘i (the traditional method of pounding kalo into pa‘i‘ai and poi); and hula to build strength and endurance.

“It provides an opportunity not only for educating the children, but also my household,” Park said.

At the start of the Hāna School day with students ranging in age from kindergarten to high school, some children exchange greetings with their teachers or kumu in Hawaiian, asking for permission to enter the classroom. The greetings create a moment of calm to allow the students to collect themselves and focus on the coming day. Teachers note that the students are sharing their knowledge with their parents, enabling their households to adopt the same practices.

“I’ve heard about this happening before in households from my great-grandparents but it was never available for me while growing up,” Park said.

The Hāna Ola Project is based on evidence that community engagement in culturally grounded activities that incorporate traditional values and social connectedness positively impact health and well-being.

Here in Hāna, more than 40 percent of the 1,200 residents are Native Hawaiian. Many families who live and work here commute once a week to shop in Kahului to buy groceries, including rice and canned goods. It’s a costly drive of more than 50 miles on narrow, winding roads and bridges. A change in food choices can have a profound effect, both in terms of physical health but also in allowing for more circulation of goods, services and traditional knowledge within Hāna. Educators and health professionals are looking for ways to increase the local economy, where fresh produce grown in Hāna is increasingly consumed in Hāna.

“Our collaboration with Ma Ka Hāna Ka ‘Ike, a trusted and successful non-profit in Hāna, helps us work more effectively on our shared goal of building community resilience and improving the health of Native Hawaiians throughout the state,” said Dr. Todd Seto, Queens’ medical director of academic affairs and research.

Photo: Community members
Community members enjoy the fresh produce.

Health is often thought of as an individual endeavor, but this grant contextualizes individual health within a social and cultural framework. Groups work collaboratively and cooperatively to accomplish tangible goals, whether it’s growing farm produce or making poi. The preparation for poi includes harvesting, cooking, and pounding the taro into poi – all activities that are done more effectively as a team.

“It’s just the idea of putting in your own mana and providing food. It connects people and changes their mindset,” said Hāna Ola Project official Lipoa Kahaleuahi.

Students have little gardens near the school where they also can grow string beans, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, squashes, and carrots. Breadfruit is grown throughout Hāna, and one of the largest collections in the world is at nearby Kahanu Gardens. And at a sister project several miles east of Hāna Town, students and their families have the opportunity to take what they learn and grow and share produce at a 10-acre Mahele farm. Besides regular participants, the community farm has residents who sign up for volunteer days and receive credits and access to the produce for their labor.

“We have kupuna who come down regularly, sometimes an occasional school group,” said Hāna Ola Project official Lipoa Kahaleuahi.

Richard Rutiz, the outgoing executive director, who helped to develop the Office of Hawaiian Affairs grant, notes the process starts with the children often bringing the produce they grow, or the poi they pound, back home to their families. This develops into a new healthy habit, where some families choose to go down a different road to a healthier diet – a way provided by the Hāna Ola Project.

Photo: Person working on a Taro field
Tending to taro, building on tradition.

The three-year grant from the Office Hawaiian Affairs also helps to support excursions 10 miles east to the Wailua Nui peninsula, where taro is grown extensively and Native Hawaiian farmers have successfully fought to exercise their water rights and maintain the traditional economy. Students are able to learn from the farmers about the importance of maintaining flowing streams to preserve native species including shrimp or ‘opae and ‘o‘opu. They’re also help the farmers by stepping into the taro patches to clear them of weeds. But before they do, they exchange greetings in Hawaiian and ask to enter the lo‘i. Hana School teacher U‘i Paman, who teaches the 5th grade, believes these kinds of experiences involving the cultivation of kalo contribute to students’ well-being.

“My kids are very respectful and responsible,” Paman said.

“There’s a sense of balance, unit and harmony. We’re talking about eating well and working a lot. It’s very good for the body, mind and spirit.”

According to teachers, the program provides an opportunity for the parents to become involved with their child and a transformation in their family lifestyle, spending more time to work together, doing traditional practices, increasing their participation in growing, making and eating fresh foods every week

In addition to these benefits, the ground has been reclaimed to work toward long-term sustainable food systems for Hāna’s land and people. Through the Hāna Ola activities, the seeds of change have been planted for a return to traditional foods, stronger communities and better health.