University of Hawaii researchers are teaming up with a farm on Oahu’s west side to study how people’s connection with the land affects their health.

A key partner in the project is the local non-profit Ma’o Organic Farms, which the researchers say has a big impact on Waianae by producing organic foods for businesses while offering employment and educational opportunities for youths.

“We are starting with Ma’o right now but we are hoping to extend this” to study health disparities statewide, said Ruben Juarez, an economics professor.

Participants’ height, weight and blood pressure are measured for the project. University of Hawaii

Chronic disease rates are high in Hawaii but especially in communities with high populations of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders like Waianae.

“It’s a big issue obviously and multifaceted problem that requires a lot more than just people in the health care industry and researchers like us,” said medical school professor Alika Maunakea.

He added that community organizations need to be involved in the effort to improve health in the islands.

The project, “Aina and Ola are Connected,” is focused on how people’s social circle can influence their choices and behaviors.

The farm’s Youth Training Leadership interns are participating in the study, which includes a 90-question survey and completion of their health measurements.

The study is being funded by the Hawaii Medical Service Association Foundation and the first round of preliminary results are expected this summer.

Health Disparities

Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are almost three times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than whites, according to the Office of Minority Health.

That means communities with high populations of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders such as Waianae, have the largest proportion of health disparities in the state.

May Okihiro, a pediatrician at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center and assistant professor with the UH Department of Pediatrics, said the rates of obesity and diabetes has increased in Hawaii as more westernization and lifestyle changes happen.

She said lower-income and rural communities like Waianae have been affected the most.

“We’ve recognized the high prevalence of obesity and diabetes in the community for many years now and it’s a multifactorial problem that’s rooted not just in individual lifestyle choices but in changes overall to our communities and our ways of life,” Okihiro said.

Okihiro said those changes include high food costs and traffic congestion, issues Waianae residents are all too familiar with.

“It is a tremendous burden that people have to take having a job anywhere outside of where they live if they live on Oahu,” she said. “People don’t have enough time and resources oftentimes to make the healthiest of meals and I think fast food is one way that they have addressed that.”

Youth Leadership Training intern Colsen Balai farming at Ma’o Organic Farms. Kenny Paresa/Ma'o Organic Farms

Teaming Up With Ma’o Organic Farms

Mala ‘Ai Opi Community Food Systems Initiative or Ma’o Organic Farms is located in Waianae’s Lualualei Valley. The 24-acre farm consists of six major land divisions and grows more than 25 types of crops year-round.

The farm was founded in 2001 by Maunakea’s aunt, Kukui Maunakea-Forth, and her husband Gary, as a way to grow food for self-sufficiency and empower Waianae’s at-risk youths.

One goal is to grow plants used in Native Hawaiian healing traditions while connecting the community to its cultural roots.

“We have strategies to maximize health in our communities and it doesn’t look like going to a clinic,” Maunakea-Forth said. “In fact, that’s where you go when you’re sick, but where do you go if you’re healthy.”

The farm’s Youth Leadership Program pays for college tuition and gives students a stipend while study subjects can receive up to $40 for their participation.

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