More Gardens For The Garden Island

When his daughter was born nine years ago, Keone Kealoha vowed to make the world a better place. The result is Malama Kaua'i, an organization that actively works to make food independence a reality for our island. Amanda C. Gregg photo

The world forever changed for Keone Kealoha nine years ago with the birth of his first daughter, an event that led him to vow to change the world for the better.

“Before my children were born, my mentality used to be ‘What’s going on tonight?’ That was my approach to life,” Kealoha says. “After my daughter was born, it became ‘What kind of place are we offering our children?'”

Which led Kealoha to co-found Kilauea-based Malama Kaua’i with Chris Jaeb of Common Ground in 2006. Since then he has been working toward the goal to malama care for the island and its people. Though originally from Kahuku, Oahu, Kealoha and his three children, Sophia, 9, Kala’i, 6, and Kauka, 3, call Kaua’i home.

Gardens are certainly a far cry from his original career deejaying for clubs and events which took him from Honolulu to Los Angeles to Thailand to Tokyo. He also spent eight years in Silicon Valley as a computing consultant.

Malama Kaua‘i students learn early about cooperation and responsibility. Photos courtesy Malama Kaua‘i

Malama Kaua’i has grown significantly as an organization since its inception, thanks in part to its green business initiatives and educational gardens. With what Kealoha describes as deep appreciation for Jaeb (whose personal donations made it all possible), the nonprofit is now moving forward on its strategic plan as a community action organization. Led by a diverse board of development leaders including volunteers Dan and Patricia Hempey, Pam Burrell, Warren Doi and Michelle Paul, to name a few, the nonprofit is looking to add to that list people who care about making the island a more sustainable, thriving place.

“Down the road, we’d like to get food security and create edible landscapes, and supply food banks,” Kealoha says. “It takes time, but it would be such a reward and benefit the community as a whole.”

An educational resource for both keiki and adults and a culturally relevant way to get Kaua’i back to a more independent way of life Malama Kaua’i uses food as a focus because it tells a story.

“Preserving and perpetuating native plants tells of a culture and connects people to history,” Kealoha says. “The majority of the food that was present in the traditional Hawaiian diet was nutritious and healthy, and is already acclimatized to this environment: Taro, ulu, banana there is a multitude of plants that grow well here.”

Keone Kealoha and Dan Hempey in the Common Ground garden in Kilauea. Amanda C. Gregg photo

Noting ulu is potentially abundant but barely seen at local farmers markets, Kealoha says bringing more attention to it is simple: by growing it at schools and in community neighborhood gardens, such as the one that will open Aug. 13 with Malama Kaua’i’s help.

Food is one of the fundamental aspects of how people relate to the ‘aina, but not enough people are connected to their food (nearly 90 percent of what appears on local grocery shelves is imported). That disconnect is one of the challenges the organization faces. To Kealoha, food sustainability is home-grown both in gardens and with education.

“Changing our behaviors in where we get food and how we feed ourselves begins with keiki,” Kealoha says.

Perhaps that’s why he is most proud of the Kaua’i School Garden Network, which includes 25 of the island’s K-12 schools, along with a Farm to Preschool project that will launch in 19 local schools under the state Department of Health’s Get Fit Kaua’i program.

Gardens are not only tangible touchstones relating people to the land and its history. They also offer something more simple to the community.

Getting an early start. Photo courtesy Tiana Kamen

Dan Hempey, Malama Kaua’i board member and local attorney, says gardens put a smile on people’s faces.

“To see the community garden go from a boardroom discussion to a set of plans, to an incredibly dense food and flower garden allowing dozens of Kaua’i people to start growing food it’s very rewarding,” Hempey says. “I know that the word ‘sustainability’ has become almost cliché lately, but it doesn’t take rocket science to understand that exporting most of what we grow here and importing most of what we eat seems wasteful.”

It’s not just an endeavor for vegetarians. Hempey says there’s satisfaction in knowing where your food comes from for instance, the local beef he ate recently that had been raised on home-grown arugula.

“It was just exceptional, better than any restaurant,” he says. “Home-grown food just tastes better. Sometimes I stop at the community garden after work just to gaze. It went from weeds to abundance. You can even see the soil improving without chemicals.”

Hempey says gardening also enhances the lives of those who reside near the gardeners and offers his wife, Patricia, also a Malama Kaua’i volunteer, as an example. “She wakes before dawn, waiting for first light so she can check to see what her plants have done overnight,” he says. “And she’s known for sharing her produce with the neighbors.”

Kids learn early about healthy eating. Photo courtesy Malama Kaua‘i

The next phase for Malama Kaua’i (Hempey says preemptively, “if we can get the funding”) is to ready quarter-acre plots so entry-level farmers can get a foothold gardening on Kaua’i.

Committed to its “Keep It Local” initiative, the nonprofit also is using other platforms to make change, including new “apps” for environmentally responsible visitors and residents. The applications are the next stage of a designation of green businesses that Kealoha helped put together in 2009 with the Kaua’i Office of Economic Development. Coupled with a corresponding islandwide “green map,” the project was intended to encourage environmentally and socially conscious-driven purchases. A digital version has since expanded the printed map format to become an online resource with iPhone and iPad navigation systems.

Partnering with, a company co-founded by Malama Kaua’i volunteer Warren Doi, the program can plug into the car and help virtually anyone make eco-savvy decisions.

“The mobile applications are taking (the green map) to a whole other level, and include farmers markets, hiking and biking maps, beach information and other things relevant to folks on Kaua’i, visitors and residents alike,” Kealoha says.

As visitors explore the island looking for things to do, the interactive map presents vendors based on users’ interests and proximity (through a GPS system). An added bonus, is it created value for businesses that are doing the right thing, as it potentially rewards restaurant and retail owners that have smaller carbon footprints and reduce waste by bringing them customers.

Keone Kealoha, Michelle Paul, Patricia Hempey, Dan Hempey, Pam Burrell and Warren Doi. Amanda C Gregg photo

It makes sense that some of Kealoha’s proudest accomplishments with Malama Kaua’i stem from the partnerships he’s worked hard to create. He seems to have elevated networking to an art form, and has been practicing that art since the nonprofit’s onset. Arranging meetings he dubbed “eco-roundtables” with stakeholders, Kealoha found himself at the hub of 40 groups that began getting together once a quarter. Surfrider Foundation, Kaua’i Planning & Action Alliance, Kaua’i Monk Seal Watch Program, Zero Waste Kaua’i and Apollo Kaua’i, along with intrigued members of the public, were all at the table.

Calling it “connecting the dots,” Malama Kaua’i board member Pam Burrell says it was realizing that everyone has a responsibility for what they buy, how they live and what they eat that led her to become part of the growing network.

“That’s what it’s about,” Kealoha says, noting the key is finding common goals. “It’s always been about sharing and understanding each other.”

Still looking to build partnerships and engage members of the community, Kealoha wants everyone to get actively involved, whether by taking responsibility and making a personal commitment to change how one looks at food, volunteering, donating inkind services or offering a financial contribution.

“That is what is going to change our community,” he says. “It starts with a personal commitment and then reaching out to others, our family and our neighbors.”

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