Joshua Noga remembers preparations for a wedding held at Kalihi Valley Homes, the state’s largest public housing project, in the late-1980s.
He was 6 years old and picking breadfruit — his contribution to the dishes traditional to his Native Hawaiian and Samoan ancestry. At a church across the street, meat and vegetables were cooked in an imu for a feast that would feed 40 people.
“Many of our families come from the villages in Samoa. So that’s what we were re-creating, a village type of atmosphere,” said Noga. “It was so beautiful.”
It was the type of event he wishes would happen more often these days.
Immigrant communities like the one Noga grew up in still populate Kalihi’s large public housing complexes. Crops grow well in the lush valley, but many of the working class residents in Kalihi don’t have access to fresh produce.
“It’s really tough in Hawaii to eat healthy,” said Dr. Joseph Keawe’aimoku Kaholokula, “because most people, especially those living in that area, sometimes work two jobs.”
A professor at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine, Kaholokula researches chronic diseases among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.
Healthy food is either too expensive, too far away for people who rely on public transit, or it takes too long to prepare for people who work multiple jobs. Instead of fresh produce, Kaholokula says, meals served in Hawaii’s low-income households typically consist of white rice with canned meat.
The program’s staff sets up a stand at two weekly farmers markets in Kalihi, the Roots Double Bucks Booth. At the booth, shoppers can double their food stamp dollars when purchasing fruits and vegetables from vendors.
The Roots Project runs one of those markets. It’s called The Crop Shop, and it’s held in the parking lot of the state’s second-largest public housing complex, The Towers at Kuhio Park.
On the other side of the housing complex, the program manages a garden where community members can grow food and reap the harvest.
They focus on growing traditional edible and medicinal plants from Pacific Islands and Asia, including breadfruit and malunggay trees, taro, lemon grass and Asian greens.
“All foods which bind people from quite disparate parts of the Pacific together and create a shared sense of community,” said Dr. David Derauf, KKV’s executive director.
A booth at two farmers markets might not seem like much, but the grass-roots effort is instrumental in addressing health disparities among communities.
“When we talk about the diets for many of us who live in Kalihi or are from Kalihi, a lot of it is based on the value menu meal at the local fast food place,” Noga said.
Growing up, heathy food was scarce. He was grateful for meals of canned corned beef or pork and beans, but later came to understand that what nourished him also caused damage.
“What you have now is large amount of Pacific Islanders who have these detrimental health impacts because of their diets,” he said.
It’s an injustice, says Noga, who now works as a community organizer and senior program manager for the Center for Food Safety in Hawaii.
A host of illnesses disproportionately affects Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, resulting in shorter life expectancies than other groups, according to a 2010 study by the Asian Pacific Islander Health Forum.
In Hawaii, the study found, they suffer from diet-related illnesses, including diabetes and hypertension.
It also found that diabetes rates among Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders in the United States are three times that of Caucasians.
Hawaii has seen renewed interest in locally grown produce in the last two decades, but access remains difficult for many people who cannot afford such products at restaurants and stores.
“That model doesn’t really trickle down,” says Jesse Lipman, the community food programs coordinator at KKV.
Corner stores around Kalihi accept Electronic Benefit Transfer, a form of food stamps, but many don’t offer fresh produce.
“A lot of these stores that accept EBT, they don’t sell healthy food,” said Lawakua Joy of the Roots Program. “They sell a lot of junk food and some even accept EBT for alcohol and cigarettes.”
In two years of working at the Roots Double Bucket Booth, Joy has seen the program slowly gain popularity as shoppers learned they could turn up to $20 of food stamps into $40 worth of fresh produce.
He says 30 to 40 people take advantage of the offer during a typical farmers’ market.
Wholesome Wave partners with 31 organizations to create booths that double snap dollars at 425 farmers’ markets across the U.S. The programs rely on federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grant Program.
The Roots Program started its benefits program in 2011 at a farmers’ market run by the city’s People’s Open Market program. Some 25 farmers markets across Oahu accept EBT cards for produce, but only the two markets in Kalihi offer the Roots Double Buckets Booth.
These markets also help Hawaii’s small farmers, who are often left with produce they can’t sell to grocery stores. The produce might be overripe or blemished, or simply be a type that doesn’t appeal to grocery store customers.
“We’re taking some products which aren’t sexy enough for Whole Foods or whoever else, but people want it,” Lipman said.
When discussing the programs KKV offers, Derauf emphasizes the importance of food beyond nutrition and caloric intake.
“Food is really at the core of so many of the things that connect us to each other, to our ancestral past,” he said.
The experience of growing, preparing and serving food as a community is critical to developing a sense of well-being.
Kalihi hosts a large population of immigrants from Micronesia, where rising sea levels and a lack of economic opportunity are prompting many to seek new lives in the U.S. including Hawaii. Derauf calls Micronesia an example of “the consequences of colonization and the disruption of the traditional food systems that existed.”
To create a sense of place in a community of displaced people, staff at The Roots Project transformed a vacant concrete lot in the housing complex into a community garden.
The organization doesn’t sell any of the produce grown in the garden. Instead, it’s given to people who volunteer their time tilling the soil, and to passersby.
“One of our visions is that that whole area transitions from ornamental plants or trees to food-bearing plants and trees,” Lipman said.
For a while, lilikoi vines covered the fence around the garden, and passersby could take what they wanted.
Across the street is Liniapuni Elementry School, where 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to data from the state Department of Education.
On Wednesday afternoons children visit the garden after school to water plants, feed rabbits and play. They laugh with each other and speak in their native tongue.
“The idea is eventually, you create a culture of abundance,” said Lipman.