One of the highlights of my recent trip to Hawaii—reporting this month’s feature on the new wave of Hawaiian food—was a visit to MA’O Organic Farms, on Oahu’s west coast. (I’m not alone: Michelle Obama was evidently smitten with the place during her own visit to MA’O last November.)
The farm unfolds over 24 acres in the fertile Lualualei Valley, within the relatively remote community of Waianae (“WIE-a-nie”). The variety of MA’O’s bounty is impressive enough, ranging from kale, beets, and fennel to bananas, mangoes, and papaya (there’s also an experimental blueberry patch). All this is sold at Oahu farmer’s markets, and also to a handful of groceries and restaurants around the island. (As I mentioned in my article, MA’O’s ethereal salad greens play a starring role at Town restaurant in Honolulu.)
But what’s truly impressive is that the farm’s day-to-day operations are run almost entirely by interns, ages 17 to 24, recruited from the surrounding community. (Waianae, which has a large population of Native Hawaiians, is also one of the poorest regions in the state.) After a rigorous application process, MA’O interns commit to working on the farm some 20 hours a week for up to three years. In exchange for part-time labor, they’re given a full tuition waiver to a local college and a monthly stipend; second-year interns can start funding their own education savings account, with MA’O matching their contributions 2-to-1.
Some interns stay on as full-time staff after completing their schooling; others move on to new ventures that may have nothing to do with agriculture. The goal is not merely to educate needy and undernourished youth about organic farming, nutrition, and food security (all fundamental to MA’O’s mission), but to provide the leadership training and business-development skills to help them rise above minimum wage. “Most of our interns are the first in their family to go to college,” says Kamuela Enos, MA’O’s social enterprise director.
It’s hard to overestimate the effect the program has had on these kids, and on the Waianae community as a whole. And it was downright impossible not to be moved by the sight, on my last night in Oahu, of the entire MA’O intern crew—all 40 of them—taking over half the dining room at Town for their annual banquet. Chef Ed Kenney and his team treated the group to a multicourse feast, showcasing ingredients the interns had planted and harvested themselves. After the three-hour dinner, the kids were given a raucous standing ovation by the chef, the kitchen staff, and every other diner in the restaurant.
Peter Jon Lindberg is Travel + Leisure's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter @PeterJLlindberg.