Gary and Kukui Maunakea-Forth's organic farm offers young adults the chance to learn about food, an opportunity that has had a ripple effect across their health.

Gary and Kukui Maunakea-Forth started their organic farm in Waiʻanae, Oʻahu, in 2001 to provide college scholarships to 18- to 24-year-olds in exchange for planting and harvesting crops. They named the farm MAʻO, an acronym for Māla ʻAi ʻŌpio or "youth food garden." The couple thought higher education was the answer to reducing the rate of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, that are far more prevalent in Waiʻanae than in other regions of Hawaii. "When youth are more educated and empowered about where their food comes from, they cook better, they eat better food, they're more aware of diet and exercise," says Gary. However, as the couple would later learn, the two-year-long internships on the farm had a more immediate impact.

What They Did

In 2017, the Maunakea-Forths partnered with the University of Hawaiʻi to study how the students' time at the farm impacted their physical health. At the outset, 62% of the 80 new interns at MAʻO were found to have prediabetes or diabetes; after a year, that number dropped to 30%. The farm's interns consumed more vegetables, which improved their gut microbiomes (analyzed through fecal matter). This, in turn, led to better glycemic control and fewer cases of type 2 diabetes. "This study shows that a community-based organization that is not directly tied to health care can play an important role in the prevention of diseases," says study co-author Ruben Juarez, Ph.D., professor at UH Economic Research Organization.

Why It's Cool

MAʻO has grown to 281 acres, making it one of the largest certified organic farms in Hawaii. Inspired by the study, the couple surveyed alumni in 2020 and found additional social and health benefits, from higher self-esteem to less tobacco and alcohol consumption, compared to those who hadn't been through the program. Kiana Tector, 24, says her time at MAʻO made her more mindful of what she eats. She also found that her change in diet spread within her home. "I noticed my family started eating a lot more vegetables because I brought them home from the farm," she says. "Learning about the connection we have to the land and our food is powerful, but being able to share that with our families and see the impact we have is empowering."

This article first appeared in EatingWell magazine, January/February 2022.