WRITTEN BY LAUREN RUOTOLO
KALO MAY HAVE DWINDLED, but it never disappeared from the islands. The question remains— will we continue to see kalo, a highly revered staple crop, decline? Or will we collectively lift kalo back into the spotlight of our lives where it deserves to be? The loss of kalo, due to eating habits and increased cost of the starch per pound, is akin to a loss of cultural identity in Hawai‘i. To support the future of kalo, we must consider the current and future patterns of our entire food system. We are at a major crossroads within science, education, and consumerism and our choices within the food chain will have a ripple effect for generations to come. To say the future of food is high-tech, genetically-modified, imported, fast, and processed speaks volumes about the values of the food system we’re building for future generations. As consumers, we can either continue to ride the wave of convenience by buying imported, packaged foods, or we can put in the work as a collective that is needed to create resilience. The work to radically change current consumption patterns will take many hands.
The local food movement is the leading edge of a change that ultimately will transform the Hawaiian food system from imported to sustainable and local. It will take education, joint community efforts, and a willingness to participate.
The sustained success of kalo won’t happen without fundamental changes to the industry. According to many Hawaiians, the hope for kalo remains with the sentiment that it is our kuleana (responsibility) to maintain and protect the gifts of kalo and Hawaiian knowledge of growing and cooking it for the benefit of future generations. These values symbolize the spiritual and physical well-being of not only the kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) and their heritage, but also the environmental, social, and cultural values important to Hawai‘i.
The future of kalo lies in our ability to build these values into the places where we consume and purchase food. With this in mind, the future needs to support local farmers, access to land for farming, garden education in our schools, and community infrastructures such as food hubs and cultural resource centers. If we can restore Hawaiian farming of kalo around the islands, we can bring back health to the land, people, and communities. The plant alone is amazingly versatile, nutritious, and delicious in many forms. These innovations can point to a different kind of future—a future that includes an abundance of locally grown food embedded within the Hawaiian values of health and integrity for Hawai‘i’s people and land.
Biodiversity was once the key to kalo longevity through naturally and selectively bred Hawaiian varieties that were cultivated for generations. This important indigenous food crop depends on humans to keep it alive and thriving. We need to do what we can to keep kalo around for the next generation to inherit the benefits of this traditional and culturally significant food. Safeguarding the kalo collection comes with many challenges, and modern threats are more manageable with proper intervention and good horticultural practices.
Sharing information through creating a network of farmers, researchers, and gardeners could prove helpful in documenting cultivar characteristics, best-growing conditions, preferred growing sites, pest and disease resistance, and productivity under a range of conditions, sites, and growing practices. Additionally, we could establish huli (mature kalo) banks with clean (disease-free) plant stock on each island to revitalize lo‘i kalo diversity. Through prevalent techniques that are environmentally and culturally aligned, the future can include collaboration among science and education institutes that are based on a foundation of respect for plants, culture, and people. This would also include thoughtfully engaging with communities to understand what, specifically, is needed to proactively protect and steward kalo and other traditional crops. Impactful programs can emerge to strengthen the ongoing restoration of kalo, agricultural landscapes, and Hawai‘i’s food system.
SERVING THE FUTURE
To perpetuate the ancient traditions around kalo production, it will take hands-on education to encourage the next generation of farmers. We can no longer separate ‘ai pono (healthful eating) from the productivity of our ‘aina; we must solidify this relationship. In valuing our local food system, we need to redefine farming as not a low-class job to avoid, but as a viable career. Educators must begin to highlight kalo farming as what it is—holistic, fun, and nurturing. Contemporary Hawaiian culture-based charter schools are leading the way, as farming has been painfully absent from local public education for the last century. A resurgence of career technical education pathways like agriculture and culinary classes that feature kalo through experiential elements is needed. Schools could even feature their own dry or wetland lo’i kalo to explore not just agriculture, but history and culture as well.
The more opportunities there are in getting students’ feet wet in the lo‘i or getting their hands emerged in the soil, the more youth will want to step into the future by connecting with the past. Imagine agriculture teachers sharing newly harvested kalo plants with students after teaching them how to build a proper lo‘i kalo, or culinary teachers sharing creative kalo gnocchi and pa’i ‘ai pizza recipes alongside traditional recipes like laulau and luau stew. By nurturing the connection between the land, food, and our youth, we can restore the health of both the ‘aina and the families who inhabit it.
It is through producing one’s own food and feeding others that people can thrive. The technologies developed by Native Hawaiians not only allow for sustainable and prolific food production, but also encourage the growth of cooperative community relationships. Envision a future where individuals come together to help strengthen, contribute to, and benefit from resilience within our food system.
Imagine a regional food hub that holds community poi, pa’i ‘ai, or laulau days where folks can share labor and rewards with their neighbors. A place where you can share tools, seeds, crops, and other resources. A center that shares family-based cultural experiences based on Hawaiian traditions, like how to hand-carve a papa ku‘i ‘ai (wooden poi board) and a pohaku ku‘i ‘ai (stone pestle) with natural materials gathered from the land. A communal kitchen where you can share rituals of cooking and eating with your neighbors. Activities like these can draw Hawaiian communities closer by celebrating kalo for all it was and continues to be for our island.
ROOTED IN THE FUTURE
Education, better consumerism practices, and community infrastructure can help propel kalo cultivation far into the future to ensure a vibrant internal and external market. Instead of local families quietly holding the burden of buying local poi at $10 to $15 per pound, they can participate in traditional practices to preserve a culture. The market also rests on our ability to grant tourists their desire for an authentic Hawaiian cultural experience through sampling kalo products.
As we plant more of this ancient dietary staple and work to align education, community infrastructure, and our markets, greater attention to indigenous thought and relationship with kalo will grow. Let us celebrate this culinary tradition to sustain the kalo industry far into the future. [ eHI ]
HO’OMOE WAI KĀHI KE KĀO’O
LET’S ALL TRAVEL TOGETHER LIKE WATER FLOWING IN ONE DIRECTION