When 15-year-old Hunter Spangler was brainstorming ideas for his Eagle Scout project last fall, he met with Pastor Keith Wolter, who leads the congregation at Christ Lutheran Church in Mililani.

Hawaii Grown“We were walking around the property and I was telling 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 to turn an unused section 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 church council loved the idea and voted to fund maintenance and irrigation for the garden in perpetuity. In March more than two dozen volunteers spent two weekends installing irrigation and building planters.

“I was grateful that so many people helped,” Spangler said. “I hope in five years it’s still there, still maintained … and people are donating food to homeless shelters and other charitable organizations.”

In March, volunteers braved the mud and rain in Mililani to install weed liners and fill the raised vegetable beds with dirt. Courtesy: Amanda Spangler

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 connected local farms with food banks during the pandemic are scaling down as cash runs out or as hotels and restaurants that typically purchase a lot of local food reopen. Even though Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program beneficiaries have increased 30% since February 2020, there are still only 30 farmers markets across the state participating in SNAP, the federal program formerly known as food stamps.

Motivated by the price of food — along with worries about climate change and a personal connection during the pandemic — a growing number of communities across the state are coming together to help their neighbors grow their own food.

“We need more farm to grocery store programs and options for everyone to purchase produce,” said Stacy Lucas, a peer mentor for the sustainable agriculture program at Leeward Community College. “We have a lot of great farm to school programs and kids are getting used to local food but it needs to be accessible for everyday people.”

The Modern Victory Garden

Jenny Pell is spearheading an ambitious plan to build 1,000 backyard food gardens across Maui free-of-charge.

The idea came to her in February of 2020 as the pandemic tore through her sister’s hometown in Italy.

“I realized that this is coming, it’s coming soon and it’s going to be bad,” she said. “We need to grow more food.”

George Kahumoku uses a power tool to dig a hole while another volunteer assists with a pickax.
Musician George Kahumoku prepares the land for a fruit tree, which will serve as the centerpiece of the garden.  Robin Proctor/Food Security Hawaii

At the time Pell was sitting on the board of Food Security Hawaii, a nonprofit organization created to protect Maui’s food system from the impacts 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 broke ground on the first gardens in two backyards at the Hawaiian Homelands in Kula.

A professional gardener helped the families pick what fruit trees, herb seeds and vegetable starts would be best for their lifestyle and 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 help solve any problems that come up.

“I was inspired by the victory gardens during World War II but when I looked into it I realized that after the war a lot of them failed,” Pell said. “So we really made sure we could provide long-term support.”

Food Security Hawaii is a climate-focused nonprofit, so all these backyard gardens are modeled on agroforestry. These food forests mimic nature by layering large, medium and small plants of various growth rates. Agroforests sequester more carbon from the atmosphere and are generally considered more resilient to the effects of climate change than modern agriculture.

A woman in a mask and overalls holds two saplings.
Jenny Pell helped plant pomegranate trees, a blood orange tree, thyme, oregano, African basil, onions, tomatoes, tuscan kale, zucchini and kabocha squash for a “Mediterranean-themed” food forest.  Robin Proctor/Food Security Hawaii

Current applicants have to have a yard large enough to fit multiple fruit trees that make up the heart of the food forests. But Pell said there’s still options for people who don’t have a large backyard.

“If you have only a balcony or a small lanai and you want to grow some food, we’ll support you by helping you do container gardens,” she said. “And once COVID lets up a little bit we’ll be looking into where we can have community gardens.”

It’s a pay-what-you-can program and anyone living on Maui can apply. All participants will be trained on the basics of planting, growing and nurturing a food forest and tasked with teaching those skills to five people in their lives.

“When so many of us feel hopelessness and despair … if you’re able to give someone something — whether it’s knowledge or a five-gallon bucket of lilikois or homemade guava jam — that’s joyful,” Pell said. “We want to empower people to be as generous as they naturally are and spread that joy.”

Fostering Community

When Beverley Brand founded the Waikoloa Village Community Garden on Hawaii island, she had no idea a worldwide pandemic would make people desperate 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 anywhere near her neighborhood. So Brand approached her homeowner’s association with a plan. Other members joined in, and they secured a quarter-acre lot in the corner of a horse-stable on the property.

Using $15,000 from past fundraisers, the group built a fence, brought in topsoil and installed irrigation. Now there are 50 active plots and over 100 people participate in some way. The local horse stable provides manure for fertilizer and people take it upon themselves to pull weeds and lay down wood chips between the plots.

“No one would claim that the gardens support 100% of their food requirements, but most of us gardeners have managed to really cut down on how much imported food we have to buy,” said Ray Pace, who grows lettuce, corn, peppers, tomatoes, bananas and onions in his 10-by-4 plot.

Rows of community garden plots at the Waikoloa Community Garden on the Big Island.
Beverley Brand says the garden is like “one big science experiment” on what can grow in Waikoloa Village, which is extremely windy and doesn’t get much rain. Courtesy: Beverley Brand

Participants pay $40 a year to cover their water bills, but the only other rule is to be a good neighbor.

“It turned out really good,” Brand said. With growing interest due to the pandemic, she’s planning outdoor workshops and lectures in the garden.

She said she wishes everyone in Hawaii had the ability to  produce fresh food, especially now. But it took a lot of hard work to get here.

“You need a compliant land owner, a fair amount of money and you have to have water and fencing at a minimum,” she said. “It can’t just be ‘Oh I’m going to put a garden over there.’”

Back in Mililani on Oahu, the church community garden is running into road bumps. Rain and a nearby construction project has delayed the installation of the last 10 garden beds. But Spangler and Wolter hope to have the garden open by the end of May.

Applications for one of the 35 garden plots will be accepted on a first-come-first-serve basis, but every gardener has to agree to only grow edible plants and donate regularly to homeless shelters and food banks.

“Whether it’s in a small or a big way, as long as it helps somebody I’ll feel glad that we spent the time to get it started,” Spangler said.

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.

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