Sweet potato vines, taro, and bitter melon vines growing in Kalihi.

A walkway lined with containers full of green onions and sweet potatoes, with bitter melon vines and eggplants winding around the edges may seem to belong in a high-end grocery store. But public health researchers found all of this and more in alleyways and streambeds in Kalihi.

A new study from researchers at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa concludes that home gardening in real life, urban, immigrant communities, is creative, culturally-driven and unsystematic. Moreover, in this dense, low-income Honolulu neighborhood, food is growing everywhere.

eggplants growing in white bucket
Eggplant growing in painters buckets on top of a garage in lower Kalihi Valley.
Bananas planted against the wall of a metal shop in an industrial neighborhood in lower Kalihi/Kapālama area.

The paper is published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health.

“We found papayas and bananas jammed against factory walls, and aquaponics stations in front of sheet-metal shops,” said Vanessa Buchthal, an assistant professor with the UH Mānoa Office of Public Health Studies in the Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work and the lead author of the study. “We found eggplant and basil along sidewalk medians and alleyways, and chain-link fences covered with bitter melon and Tahitian squash.”

Public health efforts that encourage people to grow their own food have been gaining popularity as a way to promote healthy eating. However, information and advice from agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture about starting a garden may not offer much help for immigrant communities, the researchers concluded.

“Home gardens in Kalihi do not always look like a neatly raised platform of vegetables nestled in a backyard,” Buchthal said. “People are ambitious and grow things where they can, in whatever space with sunshine and soil they have.”

Food-growing advice based on community preferences

Bananas, eggplant and citrus tree in a planter along the front driveway of a hous
Bananas, eggplant and citrus tree in a planter along the front driveway of a house in Kalihi Valley.

The study systematically analyzed food-growing practices in Kalihi, linking specific plants with types of gardens, poverty levels and local zoning laws. The results show organizations that offer food-growing advice should start by looking at a community’s existing cultivation habits and preferences. Similarly, nutrition education and obesity prevention efforts should first look at the foods that are culturally valued by the community.

“Nutrition programs in areas with substantial immigrant populations should capitalize on the communities’ existing knowledge and create a gathering space for peer support and intergenerational transmission of cultural knowledge and practices,” Buchthal said.

Buchthal’s co-authors from UH Mānoa included Denise Nelson-Hurwitz, assistant professor with the Office of Public Health Studies; Laura Hsu and Melissa Byers, both former UH public health graduate students; and Jinan Banna, associate professor with the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences

—By Theresa Kreif

squash vines
Squash vines trellised along a driveway in Kalihi Valley.