On November 12, 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama visited MA`O Organic Farm (MA`O) in my hometown, the community of Waianae, located on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Waianae is home to one of the largest populations of Native Hawaiians in the world, and unfortunately the community’s poverty, diabetes, obesity and high school drop-out rates are among the highest in the state. MA`O was founded to address these incredible challenges. It is a not-for-profit, fully certified organic farm that utilizes sustainable agriculture to serve the people of Waianae. Given the First Lady’s passion for health and nutrition, we were honored and proud to welcome her to MA`O.
The First Lady has made health and nutrition issues a national priority. Last year, she launched the Let’s Move! Campaign to bring together community leaders, teachers, doctors, nurses, and parents in a nationwide effort to tackle the challenge of childhood obesity. She has supported and promoted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s My Plate nutrition guide, which encourages eating vegetables and fruits and replaces the food pyramid as a guide to healthy eating.
The First Lady’s health and nutrition initiatives are critical to Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) communities, as nearly 20 percent of NHPI high school youth are obese. Aligning with these initiatives, MA`O’s Youth Leadership Training internship provides the opportunity to work on the farm, receive a full tuition waiver to a local community college, a monthly stipend, and a matched savings account. MA`O is currently sending 40 young adults from Waianae to college to learn about organic farming and pursue their educational aspirations. Many of the students come from families that fall below the state of Hawaii’s poverty line, and many are the first in their family to attend college. To the student interns, this program represents more than just an educational opportunity. It means local food security; it means a healthier family; and it means greater sustainability.
During the First Lady’s visit, the MA`O interns provided a tour of the farm and then participated in a lively round table discussion. Mrs. Obama learned about the mechanics of MA`O’s farming operations, the values underpinning the internship’s leadership model, and the interns’ reflections on the impacts the opportunity has had not only on their lives, but the health and wellbeing of their community. The First Lady used the conversation to share her experience working on behalf of her community in the South Side of Chicago and how that inspires all of her efforts now.
As a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, I was proud to introduce the First Lady to our community of leaders, young and old, and the values that guide our work at MA`O. The Commission has served as an invaluable platform for highlighting the innovation and asset-building in NHPI communities like Waianae. The First Lady’s unforgettable visit shines a national spotlight on indigenous models of sustainable agriculture, the vibrant spirit of the people, and the innate beauty of our land.
Kamuela Enos is a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.