Students Exploring Sustainability on the North Shore
I arrive in the concrete jungle of paradise, the Honolulu Airport, on my way to the North Shore Youth Summit. Our organization, the Lexicon of Sustainability, was invited to fly out to the island to show 200 plus students how to define sustainability in their region and relocalize their food system. The airport is smack-dab in the urban center of Oahu but after I drive just a few miles, the land becomes lush and vibrant with the smells of wet soil and pavement. Driving along the coast to the North Shore of Oahu I’ve left the urban sprawl behind. I see hand-painted signs saying, “Keep the country, country” along the 35 mph two-lane highway. This is the agricultural land and open space Hawaiians are working so hard to protect.
The coastline of the North Shore is dotted with food trucks, selling everything from fried shrimp, to shaved ice and baby kale burritos, but yes, mostly fried shrimp. Despite the fact that Hawaii is blessed with a warm climate and an infinite growing season, Hawaii imports over 85% of its food. It is said that if food stopped being brought in on barges and planes, the state would run out of food in less than two weeks. Imports include fruits, vegetables (even traditional Hawaiian crops like taro), wheat, rice, animal products and the majority of processed goods like beverages and crackers. It amazes me that an island this fertile has no long-term food security. The lack of a steady local food supply is not news to the Hawaiian government. The state has already complied a strategy to reduce its reliance on imports and drive the state’s economy by increasing local food production.
Hawaii was not always reliant on the mainland for providing all food for its survival. In its early days, Hawaii had a thriving, sustainable food system. Native Hawaiians created an agricultural system divided into equitable land divisions called ahupuaʻas, watershed corridors of agricultural land that extended from mountaintops down to the sea. Natives believed that everything was interconnected and that chiefs or priests of each ahupuaʻa managed the land to protect their natural resources. Carlos Andrade, a professor of Hawaiian studies, has said, “As the native Hawaiians used the resources within their 'ahupua'a, they practiced aloha (respect), laulima (cooperation), and malama (stewardship) which resulted in a desirable pono (balance). Theirs was an example of sound resource management, one where the interconnectedness of the clouds, the forests, the streams, the fishponds, the sea and the people was clearly recognized”.
According to Haunani-Kay Trask, director of the University of Hawaii's Center for Hawaiian Studies, “instead of growing sugar, now they grow hotels.''
When the Europeans began settling on the Polynesian islands they brought with them disease, decimating the native population. Another blow to local and diverse food production was the many American sugar plantations that moved in. By 1890, 75% of all privately held land was owned by foreign businessmen. Today, fierce outside competition has caused the majority of sugar and pineapple plantations to close, but the land remains in the hands of the businessmen.
Over the last decade, Hawaiians are working to preserve what land is left and bring back the self-sufficient, sustainable agricultural system that the natives created. One of the groups involved is the North Shore Land Trust. I was lucky enough to celebrate their most recent accomplishment during my visit: 630 acres of Oahu’s coastland, which will forever remain open space.
Another one of these important environmental groups working to preserve Hawaii’s future is the Kōkua Hawaiʻi Foundation. The organization supports environmental education and was founded by former teacher Kim Johnson and her husband musician and advocate, Jack Johnson. This is where I come in. I was invited to represent our California-based Lexicon of Sustainability and join these two organizations to host a youth summit on the North Shore. Lexicon's goal was to immerse and engage 200 plus students in their locally thriving food system and to give them the tools to protect paradise, the place they call home.
Together we implemented a condensed version of Project Localize to show students how our food choices are interconnected with the health of our local environment, economy, and culture. Our aim was to address and reinvigorate the beliefs and practices of their ancestors. In just one day these students attempted to tackle what classrooms across the mainland are doing over the course of an entire school year with our Project Localize curriculum, defining a common language for their local community to support their local farmers and understand how to choose food based on their values.
Our full day began at Waimea Valley, a sacred place of Native Hawaiian history for more than 700 years. Students arrived from ten different schools including: Roosevelt, Mililani, Kalani, Kahuku, Leileihua, Aiea, and Waialua Highs, Sunset Beach Elementary, Halau Ku Mana, and Kamehameha Schools. We began with a traditional pule, or prayer, with the students watching intently and some even chanting along. Jack Johnson then took the stage with a warm welcome and asked some questions to get the students inspired about making food choices that are good for them, their ohana (family), and their community. Local hero and chef Ed Kenney joined Jack to instill aloha ‘aina (love of land) and tasked all the students with hugging a farmer on this day. After an introduction to the lexicon, and how knowing the meaning of words like food security, biodiversity, and pasture raised can actually help protect their paradise, students hopped on the buses and headed out to four different farms, including Kahuku Farms, Waihuena Farm, Loko Ea Fishpond, and Mohala Farms. Each local farmer presented the terms and sustainable solutions practiced on their land to the students, helping to teach this new vocabulary. Many students and teachers were so inspired by the short time we spent on the farms that they plan to go back, volunteer, and get their hands dirty. And those farmers did receive hugs, lots of them. In fact, one farmer at Waihuena Farm received one great big group hug by 25 students all at once!
After lunch, back at Waimeha Valley, students broke into groups and began mapping their local food system. They used the lexicon they learned on the farms, including terms like: food waste, carbon sequestration, community supported agriculture, and soil fertility. Once their map was complete, they reviewed it as a group. Students were then asked to come up with three sustainable solutions that would benefit their local community and environment. After the group activity, students packed onto the stage to present their work. The students presented their sustainable solutions and their map as a visual aide to the youth summit. As we stood on the sidelines with the teachers, I believe we were all encouraged and inspired by what the students had to share.
One of the most commonly presented ideas by the 12 student groups on stage was to use the knowledge they acquired during the summit to spread awareness to the rest of their community: “Eat local, respect the ‘aina”. Not only did the students talk of educating their community, they wanted to start in their own schools. One group proposed a program in which local farmers visit high school classrooms to educate students about local agriculture and traditions, and then the students in turn visit elementary schools to mentor and share what they’ve learned with the younger generation. The students presenting were also fired up about waste, one student exclaims, “Let’s make compost, not war!” Another solution to preventing food waste was to improve local food policy so that restaurants aren’t afraid to donate their extra food to those in need within the community.
It was exhilarating to join these 200 students, teachers, and local heroes to look forward to a sustainable local food system for Hawaii. When students are given the words and tools to express their values, they will. And at the end of the day, the words I heard over and over again coming from the lips of our students were "Malama 'aina, respect and care for the land and it will care for you.”