Growing connection to food and history on Oahu

Jesse sits on a bench near 'Elepaio Social Services.
September 28, 2023
by Paul Morello

Land, legacy, history and food. Every day, Jesse is putting those pieces together to help build a better community in the Waianae region of Oahu, Hawaii.

“I grew up in Waianae and I got to learn and experience a lot of things here,” he said. “Through those experiences of growing up in an underserved community, you start to understand the importance of a lot of things, especially food.”

Jesse manages food systems work at ‘Elepaio Social Services, an organization that supports the Waianae Community and partners with the Hawaii Food Bank.

As a child, he was part of a fishing family and had access to high quality seafood. But when Jesse got older, he quickly saw that outside his home, very little fresh food was available in the community. That’s not how it used to be.

“In ancient times, Waianae used to be a stronghold for food,” he explained. “We had places called local he’eia, or fishponds, where you could get fish. And Waianae Valley was loaded with kalo. We had an abundance of food.”

Now, fresh food and local produce aren’t easy to find, even though Waianae remains a strong farming community. Much of the produce grown in Waianae is sold to restaurants or hotels, and what is available is often too expensive. 

So, how is Jesse starting to change that?

“Connection to food is everything,” he said. “When you’re talking about a community that has a majority of indigenous people, you have to approach it through a cultural lens." 

Part of that connection is understanding the legacy and history of the food they eat. 

“Native Hawaiians knew there was an essence and a function to the food they were growing,” Jesse said. “We gave food names, place and kuleana (responsibility).”

The second part of nourishing connection to food is creating access to culturally-preferred produce.

Jesse manages the food distributions for ‘Elepaio Social Services. With multiple distributions each week, the organization, in partnership with the Hawaii Food Bank, served nearly 4,500 households in 2022.

“When you talk about connection to food, you’re talking about the participation of our people in the food system process. And you’re talking about them eating healthier food. That’s the important thing,” he said.