Regardless of social class, economic status, language or individual time constraints, food is an inevitable constant in human life. How we relate to it on every level—how it is grown, harvested, and prepared, and with what spirit it is shared—reflects the well being of our lives.

The consequences of the observed disconnection between human life and food production are far-reaching. Children’s diets are full of processed, “fast” food high in unhealthy fats, refined sugar and chemicals; diabetes and obesity are commonplace.

Dr. Michelle Suber, a physician serving the Waimea community since 1998, was concerned with the prevalence of diet- and nutrition-related illness among her patients. Looking for a long term solution aimed at prevention, her inquiries led her to the development of a school garden program, targeting middle school adolescents as the ideal age to introduce garden classes and related life lessons.

Mala’ai was created to address the disconnection between children living in today’s fast-paced, consumer-oriented society and their lack of awareness of food origins and production. Founded in 2003 and in operation since February 2005, Mala’ai is funded from donations and grants. Working in the garden during science, PE and health classes, children are engaged in outdoor physical and academic activities such as planning, measuring garden plots, digging, composting, planting, building a tool shed, harvesting and tasting. Student response to our program is enthusiastic and teachers report improved attendance and class engagement.

With the support of WMS teachers and staff and the leadership of Amanda Rieux, the program has grown since its inception to now serve all 290 students.

Rocky Mountain Institute identified the development and promotion of school gardens as an initiative that could substantially contribute to the strength of a local food economy and increase the consumption of locally produced food on Hawai’i Island. The report recommended establishment of a Hawai’i Island School Garden Network to involve students, their school communities and family networks in food production; which has been accomplished under the leadership of The Kohala Center working in collaboration with respected organic farmer and community advocate Nancy Redfeather as Project Coordinator. Mala’ai works closely with the network as a resource for school gardens, and is considered a model school garden on the island and even in the State. Mala’ai is also distinguished nationally by Slow Food USA as having demonstrated exceptional support from the community and school and the local convivium, Slow Food Hawai’i.

A huge effort by volunteers went into making all of this possible – beginning with the project’s founder, Dr. Michelle Suber and Amanda Rieux, including many generous partners, funders and supporters including Slow Food USA, Slow Food Hawai’i, the Earl and Doris Bakken Foundation, Atherton Family Foundation, North Hawai’i Rotary, Waimea Hawaiian Homesteaders Association, Waimea Lions Club, The Kohala Center as well as many smaller donors, mentors, volunteers and cultural practitioners.