people walking in an empty forest area
Students take a tour of Hui Mahiʻai ʻĀina.

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa students are gaining real-world experience while helping a local non-profit organization further its mission to develop food self-sufficiency in Windward Oʻahu.

In fall 2021, a dozen Department of Urban and Regional Planning (DURP) graduate practicum students in the College of Social Sciences provided research, analysis and recommendations for Ke Kula Nui o Waimānalo (KKNOW) to improve food production and community access to healthy food options. The students engaged nearly 20 stakeholders in Waimānalo and analyzed data to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to a sustainable food system. Based on the research, they crafted suggested actions and plans to secure funding and other resources.

Niegel Rozet, a student from Makawao, Maui, played the role of facilitator between the class and stakeholders.

“As a Native Hawaiian and as a person from a community like this, it is so refreshing to be able to share our gifts with them to support their efforts. I was waiting for a practicum that would do something like this for communities from Hawaiʻi in order to thrive in Hawaiʻi,” Rozet said. “These communities have the tools they need already. They just need extra support, so by listening and figuring out how we can fit into their visions, we can get these groups to effectively manage Hawaiʻi’s resources a lot quicker.”

Research and results

people looking at a green building
Students tour Hui Mahiʻai ʻĀina‘s food pantry.

The students discovered many positive actions already happening in Waimānalo that aid in KKNOW’s mission, including strong community-oriented groups and individuals that want to get involved; an innovative health center, which ensures that healthy living is a key factor; and excellent conditions for growing food (prime soil and climate). Weaknesses include issues that also affect many other parts of the state, such as the high cost of local produce, and easy accessibility to foods low in nutritional value due to the large numbers of convenience stores compared to grocery stores.

Students recommended several opportunities, including expanding farmers’ markets that accept SNAP and EBT and increasing federal nutrition assistance programs to grow demand for local produce and create marketing opportunities for farmers. The students said there is growing interest within community organizations to partner together, which they hope will not only benefit Waimānalo, but expand to other parts of the state.

KKNOW board members Ilima Ho-Lastimosa and Theodore Radovich, an Extension specialist, researcher and professor in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR), expressed their appreciation for the students’ work. KKNOW earlier partnered with CTAHR to conduct a needs assessment and targeted interventions to expand the presently limited access to fresh fruits, vegetables and other local foods.

Ho-Lastimosa said, “Mahalo to the MURP (Master of Urban and Regional Planning) students and Professor Priyam Das for helping Ke Kula Nui O Waimānalo and the Waimanalo Learning Center get our Waimānalo food system organized and have easy access to pertinent information necessary to access resources and communicate with our community partners on things that will come up as we move forward in our organizing to strengthen our food system and keep our community food secure and well prepared! Aloha and Mahalo Piha!”

Radovich added, “The work done by the DURP students under the guidance of Dr. Das highlights key leverage points in the Waimānalo food system. It’s hoped that their analysis will serve a useful tool in the community’s effort to enhance Waimānalo’s food sovereignty.”

Teamwork turns ideas into action

people in a classroom looking at a chalk board
Students meet in person to prepare a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis.

Rainbow Uliʻi is a student and the UH System student basic needs coordinator. She was selected as the team leader due to her extensive background including her bachelor’s degree in sustainable community food systems from UH West Oʻahu.

“I am really grateful and feel super blessed to have the opportunity to work on a food systems plan because it aligns so perfectly with my own personal interests,” Uliʻi said. “Our class is really diverse. Everybody has interests in different things and they all come from different walks of knowledge.”

Student Shaun Wriston added, “In my current line of work, I only work with three people—it’s easy to get things done. But working with 12 students, engaging with various stakeholders and working for a client is a huge challenge. There are so many moving parts. I think learning how to do that and learning what works and what doesn’t work is a big plus.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in sociology, Tamera Blankenship entered a career in social services. She then took some time off to travel and that’s when she became interested in urban planning and what it takes to create a high quality of life for residents.

“What we found was that what we had learned in our previous classes, from economics, land use planning, environmental planning, collaboration and facilitation classes, all came to bear working on local food systems,” Blankenship said.

This work is an example of UH Mānoa’s goals of Building a Sustainable and Resilient Campus Environment: Within the Global Sustainability and Climate Resilience Movement (PDF) and Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), two of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

—By Marc Arakaki