How individuals throughout Hawaii are creating areas to develop their very own meals
When 15-year-old Hunter Spangler was developing ideas for his Eagle Scout project last fall, he met with Pastor Keith Wolter, who leads the congregation at Christ Lutheran Church in Mililani.
“We walked around the property and I told him how scouts had come by and built fences for us a couple of times,” said Wolter. “But he stopped me and said, ‘Pastor Keith, I don’t want to build a fence. I want to help people. ‘”
Spangler and Wolter came up with the idea of converting an unused portion of the church lawn in front of Wolter’s house into a community garden that would support food banks and local low-income families.
The local council was enthusiastic about the idea and voted to finance the maintenance and irrigation of the garden on a long-term basis. In March, more than two dozen volunteers spent two weekends installing irrigation and planters.
“I was grateful that so many people helped,” said Spangler. “I hope in five years it will still be there, still being cared for … and people will donate food to homeless shelters and other nonprofit organizations.”
Locally grown fruits and vegetables were unaffordable for many families even before the pandemic, and now Hawaii has the highest unemployment rate in the country. Programs that linked local farms to food banks during the pandemic will be scaled back when money runs out or when hotels and restaurants, which normally buy lots of local groceries, reopen. Although beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program have increased 30% since February 2020, only 30 farmers markets nationwide still participate in SNAP, the federal program formerly known as Grocery Brands.
Motivated by food prices – along with concerns about climate change and a personal connection during the pandemic – more and more communities across the state are coming together to help their neighbors grow their own food.
“We need more grocery store programs and options so everyone can buy products,” said Stacy Lucas, peer mentor for the sustainable agriculture program at Leeward Community College. “We have a lot of great farm-to-school programs and kids get used to local food, but it has to be accessible to everyday people.”
The modern victory garden
Jenny Pell is leading an ambitious plan to build 1,000 backyard food gardens across Maui.
The idea came to her in February 2020 when the pandemic hit her sister’s hometown in Italy.
“I realized this was coming, it was coming soon, and it was going to be bad,” she said. “We need to grow more food.”
At the time, Pell was on the board of directors of Food Security Hawaii, a nonprofit created to protect Maui’s food system from the effects of climate change. Her fellow board members liked her idea, and they spent the past year raising $ 25,000 and planning the project.
In February, they laid the foundation stone in the first gardens in two backyards in the Hawaiian homelands in Kula.
A professional gardener helped families choose the fruit trees, herb seeds, and vegetable starts best suited to their lifestyle. Volunteers dug holes and planted trees. Once a month, someone from the nonprofit will check in to see if the families have any questions and to help resolve any issues that may arise.
“I was inspired by the Victory Gardens during World War II, but when I looked at them I found that many of them failed after the war,” Pell said. “So we really made sure that we could provide long-term support.”
Food Security Hawaii is a climate-focused nonprofit, so all of these backyard gardens are modeled on agroforestry. These food forests mimic nature by layering large, medium, and small plants with different growth rates. Agroforestry absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere and is generally considered to be more resilient to the effects of climate change than modern agriculture.
Current applicants must have a yard large enough to house several fruit trees that are the heart of the food forests. But Pell said there are still options for people who don’t have a big garden.
“If all you have is a balcony or a small porch and you want to grow some food, we can support you by helping you design container gardens,” she said. “And as soon as the COVID wears off a bit, we will investigate where we can have community gardens.”
It’s a Pay What You Can program and anyone who lives on Maui can apply. All participants are trained in the basics of planting, growing and maintaining a food forest and are tasked with teaching these skills to five people in their lifetime.
“When so many of us feel hopeless and desperate … if you can give someone something – be it knowledge, or a 5-gallon bucket of lilikois or homemade guava jam – it’s a joy,” Pell said. “We want to empower people to be as generous as possible and to spread that joy.”
Little did she know when Beverley Brand started Waikoloa Village Community Garden in Hawaii that a global pandemic would make people yearn for a safe outdoor hobby like gardening.
“The air is moving and you can actually talk to people,” she said. “You don’t feel isolated in this growing, wonderful community.”
Two years ago she wanted to start growing her own fruits and vegetables, but there were no community gardens near her neighborhood. So Brand reached out to their homeowners’ association with a plan. Other members joined in and secured a quarter acre lot in the corner of a horse stable on the property.
Using $ 15,000 from previous fundraisers, the group built a fence, brought in topsoil, and installed irrigation. Now there are 50 active plots and over 100 people are participating in some way. The local horse stable provides manure for manure and the people take it upon themselves to pull weeds and put wood chips between the plots.
“Nobody would claim that the gardens provide 100% of their food needs, but most of us gardeners have really managed to really cut down on the amount of imported food we have to buy,” said Ray Pace, of lettuce, corn and Growing paprika. Tomatoes, bananas and onions in his 10 by 4 plot.
Participants pay $ 40 a year to meet their water bills, but the only other rule is to be a good neighbor.
“It turned out really well,” said Brand. With growing interest due to the pandemic, she is planning outdoor workshops and lectures in the garden.
She said she wished everyone in Hawaii had the opportunity to produce fresh food, especially now. But it took a lot of hard work to get here.
“You need a compliant landowner, a fair amount of money, and you need at least water and fences,” she said. “It can’t be easy, ‘Oh, I’m going to plant a garden over there.'”
Back in Mililani, Oahu, the church’s community garden encounters bumps. Rain and a nearby construction project delayed the installation of the last 10 garden beds. However, Spangler and Wolter hope that the garden will be open until the end of May.
Applications for any of the 35 garden plots are accepted subject to availability, but every gardener must agree to only grow edible plants and donate them to homeless shelters and food banks on a regular basis.
“Whether small or large, as long as it helps someone, I’m glad we took the time to do it,” said Spangler.
Hawaii Grown is funded in part by grants from the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Ulupono Fund, the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Marisla Fund, and the Frost Family Foundation.
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