How traditional Hawaiian food is playing a key role in wildfire recovery

<span>Unloading a fresh produce delivery at Nāpili Park Emergency Community Resource Center.</span><span>Photograph: Phil Jung/The Guardian</span>
Unloading a fresh produce delivery at Nāpili Park Emergency Community Resource Center.Photograph: Phil Jung/The Guardian

In the aftermath of last summer’s catastrophic wildfire in West Maui, Miriam Keo began to question everything – from her well-paid union job at an upscale resort and the island’s reliance on tourism and food imports, to what role she, a Native Hawaiian, should play in rebuilding Lahaina. At the heart of much of this soul searching was the question of food (meaʻai) and land (Āina) – who controls it, and why it matters.

“My outlook changed during the pandemic, but the fire was the last straw for me … I don’t want to serve tourists any more. This isn’t what our ancestors would want,” said Keo, 40, who recently resigned from the hotel after 16 years to work at a composting company. “I want to be a better steward for my people and Āina. I want to show my kids that there’s an alternative to the corporate tourism we’ve been under for so long, and food is a big part of that.”

Related: Six months after Maui wildfire, 5,000 survivors still stranded: ‘We’re tired of broken promises’

Keo was among 11,000 people displaced – and deeply traumatized – after the 8 August firestorm razed the historic town of Lahaina, killing 100 people.

The survivors, many of whom are struggling with a loss of income and food insecurity, are grateful to the Red Cross, the non-profit managing the emergency shelter program including the buffet meals served three times a day. But thousands of people are still stuck in hotels, eating the same set menu week after week with no comforting Hawaiian dishes like poi (starchy porridge) or luʻau (baked or steamed meat and fish wrapped in taro leaves) or even popular local dishes that reflect Maui’s cultural diversity such as pork and watercress soup. The strict rules forbidding food preparation and not being able to share a meal with loved ones have taken a physical and emotional toll.

“It was so frustrating not being able to cook, eating the same things over and over again, and none of our traditional foods. Everything was so Americanized,” said Keo. “Food is one of the biggest parts of who we are as people, passed down to us through our ancestors. So when that’s taken away, it makes us feel less than.”

Anastasia Arao-Tagayuna, who is still searching for suitable accommodation, said a turkey dinner buffet on Christmas day was particularly hard for her family, who would usually eat ham hock stew.

“Food is very important to us, so to not be able to eat kalo or poi or any of the traditional foods we grew up with is really hard,” she said. “If your ʻōpū [stomach] isn’t happy, you’re not happy.”

Taro or kalo is a complex starchy root vegetable, one of the oldest cultivated crops on the planet, considered sacred to Native Hawaiians.

In part, the Red Cross meals reflect the island’s pervasive tourism culture – American and European dishes are preferred by international hotel head chefs over traditional Hawaiian ingredients.

But some local groups are working to make sure survivors can access healthy, sustainably grown food – as part of a strategy to reduce food insecurity and stop people moving away for financial reasons.

Last month, Keo received a box of groceries at their new, temporary homes from the Maui Hub – a farmbox service created during the pandemic lockdown as an alternative, more sustainable market for local farmers dependent on tourism. Money is tight, so the box of goodies – ulu (breadfruit) hummus, avocados, bananas, kalo, bok choy – felt like a gift.

“We don’t have a dining table yet, but we sit on the floor to eat together and talk stories,” said Keo.

Maui Hub is thriving, and has fundraised enough money to help a hundred or so displaced families with free groceries for the next year. The priority are displaced multigenerational Native families with children in Hawaiian language immersion school. “These are the folks who testify at council meetings, go to land court, speak Hawaiian – the families we cannot afford to lose if Lahaina land is going to stay in Lahaina hands,” said Autumn Ness, co-founder of Maui Hub.

Yet there’s a push – which started long before the wildfire – to reconnect with the land and Native Hawaiian culture through traditional foods and medicines that are sustainably farmed locally.

“Every night in the hotel dining room, we would dream about what we’d cook and eat together when we got somewhere stable to live. I put on 20lbs eating food I didn’t want to eat. It feels so good to have a kitchen,” said Mikey Burke, whose family recently moved into a 12-month rental.

Burke and her husband Rob are trying to figure out how they will rebuild their home, which was underinsured, and manage mortgage payments without getting further into debt. Their four boys are also in the immersion program, and the family’s first Maui Hub delivery included kalo candy, Māmaki tea, sweet potatoes, star fruit and cabbage – which Burke cooked with ground beef, tomatoes and soy sauce to make a local classic that’s served with rice.

“Hamburger cabbage – like pork and watercress soup – is not a traditional Hawaiian dish but a very local comfort dish cooked by many households which reflects the melting pot of ethnicities and cultures in Lahaina,” Burke said.

More than a third of Lahaina’s population were Asian, mostly Filipino, while just over 10% were Latino and Naive Hawaiian.

Maui Hub is part of a broader Indigenous-led land back movement to construct a circular food economy to boost food sovereignty, climate resilience, soil health and public health, while reducing Maui’s unsustainable overdependence on tourism – which is driving the housing crisis and exacerbating water shortages.

In some cases, community-led efforts since the fire have encompassed the broader thinking on the future role of food and agriculture in building back West Maui, while generating critical debate about the status quo.

Nāpili Park is a leafy green space in a residential neighborhood, about 10 miles north of Lahaina, set back from the coastline.

A day after the fire, Kaipo Kekona, an Indigenous Hawaiian farmer and community leader, set up a tent as an ad hoc resource centre, a place to organize donations after hundreds of people from Lahaina arrived in search of safety. It was here that volunteers distributed supplies from neighboring islands to destitute survivors, days before authorities came to help.

In time, the single tent evolved into a small city of tents and trailers where locals can “shop” for free groceries – and used clothes, books and toys, haircuts, acupuncture and traditional Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massage therapy.

Anyone can fill up a plastic milk crate full of noodles, rice, canned tomatoes and other shelf-stable items, as well as an array of fresh produce grown on the island, including lion’s mane mushroom, broccoli, turmeric and ulu. Some items are rationed – one avocado, four oranges, one taro, one piece of ginger – but folks are welcome to come back every day. Almost 25,000 people, which includes repeat customers, were served between October and December 2023.

“We want to make life easier for our traumatized community … we need them to build back better or else Lahaina could end up worse,” said Kekona.

The groceries at the Nāpili hub are paid for by donations, and this has also helped several farmers who previously supplied hotels and restaurants in Lahaina stay afloat. About 150 people still come every day, some who lost everything, others who’ve been indirectly affected.

Alfredo Rotaquio, 72, and his wife Marivic, 58, witnessed the town burn while trapped inside their car after it ran out of gas. The condo they had been renting was among the 2,200 structures destroyed by the fire, and the mall where Rotaquio worked as a security guard also burned down.

A month later, he found another security job and a room in Nāpili, but the rent is 30% higher than their old place.

“We have to replace everything we lost, and didn’t have any insurance. These groceries help us make ends meet,” said Rotaquio, stocking up on tropical fruits, green plantain, plump Asian eggplants and a dozen eggs.

One in three fire survivors are experiencing very low or low food security – which means they are struggling to afford enough nutritious food, according to a recent survey conducted as part of the University of Hawaii’s Maui wildfire exposure study.

The food insecurity rate among the more than 200 fire survivors surveyed so far is 50% or so higher compared with Maui residents before the fire. The rise reflects ongoing economic woes, as the wildfire led 58% of study participants to lose their jobs. Currently, 24% are still jobless and searching while 74% report a drop in their household income. Tourists are back, but many businesses are still struggling.

Charles Dapitan, 37, a hotel worker and competitive paintball player, has been volunteering and sleeping at the Nāpili hub since the fire, having given up his small apartment for a displaced family.

“Tourism is all we’ve ever known, but now I know that my community needs me more than the tourists do. When I sit back and think about what we’ve achieved since that first tent six months ago, it’s crazy, and we can do more.”