Ai Pono Banner

Holoiʻa ka papa, kau ʻia e ka manu. Where there is food, people gather.   

Food is central in every culture, fostering traditions and a sense of community, while also providing us with the nutrients we need to live. In ‘Ai Pono, we will explore the interconnectedness of Native Hawaiian food systems and access, nutrition, and sustainability. Through this series, we will attempt to draw connections between traditional Native Hawaiian food and health/well-being.  


When doing a Google Image search for "Hawaiʻi foods," a multitude of photos of shave ice and SPAM pop up. And for many Hawaiʻi residents, these foods are staples. Although, we may not necessarily think about the history behind these foods and their connection with settler colonialism. 


"The reason why these foods kind of rise to the surface as emblematic foods of Hawaiʻi, I think, has everything to do with the way that Hawaiians have been subject to being reduced to just another ethnic category in Hawaiʻi," said Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart, who was born and raised in Kailua and attended Assets School.


Hobart, who is now an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, spoke about how Hawaiʻi's food scene has been impacted by historical structures of settler colonization.


"We can think about the arrival of the missionaries in the early 19th century and the way that really begins an early influence on ideas that have to do with race, food, and health. Hawaiʻi's local cuisine, becomes this amalgamation of different food traditions that are brought in by immigrant communities to Hawai, particularly through the plantation complex, become a really key identifying marker for people who understand themselves to have kind of a pilina relationship to Hawaiʻi." 


With the colonization of Hawaiʻi came the spread of disease, the loss of land that Hawaiians used to grow traditional foods like kalo, and a breakdown of agricultural systems in favor of monocultures.¹ Hawaiʻi's food scene drastically changed after colonization as land previously devoted to growing food intended for local use was converted to land used to grow food like rice, sugar, and pineapple for exportation.² Innovations in transportation and shipping companies like Matson, which was introduced in Hawaiʻi in 1882, also made it easier to import foods from the Pacific Coast to Hawaiʻi.³ Today, Hawaiʻi imports around 85-90% of its food.⁴ 


"(Hawaiʻi's) over-reliance on importation really speaks to the precarity that settler colonial structures kind of rely upon in order to subjugate marginalized peoples, dispossessed peoples," Hobart said.  

Hiilei PuuHuluhuu 2019 07 crop1 resized


Hobart also discussed the development of what is termed the "cold chain" – a refrigerated food chain that facilitates the globalization of the food system. For example, a Hawaiʻi resident could purchase a banana grown in South America, shipped to California, and then shipped to Hawaiʻi, despite Hawaiʻi being capable of growing its own bananas.  


"It diverts food gathering practices away from ʻāina and water-based practice from farming and fishing – getting your food fresh. But also, it requires people to be completely reliant on energy infrastructures that have an exploitative relationship with people in Hawaiʻi," Hobart said. "When we think about the cold chain, and Hawaiʻi's reliance on imported foods, it's not just about the reliance on the imported fruits themselves. But it's also the way that that system requires people to be invested in an exploitative relationship with energy companies." 


One of the foods through which we can understand the idea of the cold chain is shave ice.  


"One of the things that really strikes me ... is that there's nothing there's nothing Hawaiian about Hawaiian shave ice," Hobart said. "We do have snow and ice formations at the summit of Mauna Kea and occasionally Haleakalā. But traditionally, Native Hawaiians weren't consuming ice.  Those are kapu spaces, those are sacred spaces. We're not going up there and getting frozen water to consume." 


Shave ice was introduced in Hawaiʻi around the mid-1800s by Japanese immigrants who were working on pineapple and sugar cane plantations. Workers would shave blocks of ice and cover the shavings with sugar or fruit juice – hence the name shave ice. It was a food that helped those who were working in the sun all day cool off. Some workers even opened shops and sold shave ice after work.⁵


Today places like Matsumoto Shave Ice, Waiola Shave Ice, and Island Snow Hawaiʻi are popular tourist destinations, and shave ice has become even more popularized with photos of people like former-President Barack Obama eating shave ice and shows like Hawaiʻi 5-0 featuring its characters consuming the dessert.  


"One of the reasons why I think shave ice becomes what it is … is because it's one of the only foods that makes a rainbow. And that rainbow, in the post statehood era becomes a really potent symbol of Hawaiian state multiculturalism or Hawaiʻi state multiculturalism, and that melting pot that becomes really celebrated," Hobart said. "In that sense, it marks the colonization of Hawaiʻi in a lot of really particular ways. It not only kind of fits into this cold chain, and this over reliance on these energy infrastructures, and indigenizes it in a particular kind of way, but it also kind of aesthetically works to resolve the ethnic tensions that the U.S. was feeling, or the racial anxieties that the U.S. was feeling about Hawaiʻi's inclusion in the United States as a state. … In the post-statehood era, the multiethnic melting pot becomes the thing that makes Hawaiʻi particularly celebrated and attractive in the U.S. nation state. And shave ice kind of fits right into that narrative." 


Aside from shave ice, SPAM is another food that many people strongly associate with Hawaiʻi. 


SPAM was introduced in Hawaiʻi during World War II, providing a non-perishable food for soldiers. Many credit Barbara Funamura, a Japanese American woman, with creating the first SPAM musubi. Even after WWII, many people continued eating SPAM as it was cheap and people could prepare it in a variety of ways.⁶ SPAM has even found its way into Hawaiʻi fast food with chains like McDonalds serving a SPAM rice and egg platter. The "What is SPAM Brand" page on the SPAM website even has a note saying that the state of Hawaiʻi collectively consumes 7 million cans of SPAM each year. And the prominence of SPAM in Hawaiʻi doesn't stop there. Articles associating SPAM with Hawaiʻi tout it as a "comfort food" that has "helped shape Hawaiʻi." 


"People … love spam and eat spam, and I love spam, and I eat spam. ... It's one of the things that reminds me of home. But it also reminds me that our relationships to home or relationships to Hawaiʻi are really complicated. And they're shaped by colonialism in ways that are very difficult to extract ourselves from," Hobart said. "One of the reasons why it's so complicated for me is because people have deep emotional investments in these foods. And those emotional investments don't just have to do with identity politics or colonialism, but it has to do also with like, what your grandmother used to cook for you, how your family expresses love, how your family expresses care for one another." 


Although it can be difficult to reconcile history with our personal attachments to these foods, Hobart said something we can do is educate ourselves. 


"I think the more that we kind of lean into that political consciousness and the more that we can kind of think about and really understand in a deep way the history of colonialism in Hawaiʻi, the better equipped we will be to think about these very real and everyday challenges that people have in regard to food access, healthy eating, and sustainability." 

~ Na Maris Tasaka, Communications Assistant


Picture 712 Hiilei compressed2

Hi'ilei is shown here in blue hat participating in a panel on food systems in the hale halawai on Kaho'olawe with a group of physicians, farmers and foodies focused on 'Ai Pono, Ola Pono in 2012.  L-R:  Dr. Emmett Aluli, Hi'ilei Hobart, Elise Dela-Cruz-Talbert, Robina Campaniano and Sandra McGuinness.   Photo above is at Pu'u Huluhulu in July 2019 where Hi'ilei volunteered in the kitchen.







Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin with a food studies PhD from NYU. Her research focuses on Indigenous foodways, Pacific Island studies, and settler colonialism. You can read more about her work and studies at her website  


Further Readings/Media


  1. Cho, John J, et al. “Hawaiian Kalo, Past and Future.” Sustainable Agriculture, Feb. 2007.   
  2. Kent, George. “Food Security in Hawai'i.” Food and Power in Hawai'i, University of Hawai'i Press, 2016, pp. 28–45.  
  3. History.” Matson
  4. Hawai'i Department of Health, 2018, Good Food For All: Advancing Health Equity Through Hawai'i's Food System.
  5. Li, Ang. “Asian American Chefs Are Embracing Spam. But How Did the Canned Meat Make Its Way Into Their Cultures?” TIME, TIME USA, LLC, 28 May 2019, 11:01.  
  6. Hill, Tiffany. “The Colorful History of Shave Ice.” Hawaiian Airlines.
Pin It

Data Justice report cover 2021 Feb


Papa Ola Lokahi collaborated with Hawai'i Budget & Policy Center to assess how the monies brought in to state agencies for Native Hawaiians were being used.  This is a report of our findings.


Pin It

 Ai Pono Banner


Holoiʻa ka papa, kau ʻia e ka manu. Where there is food, people gather. 

Food is central in every culture, fostering traditions and a sense of community, while also providing us with the nutrients we need to live. In Ai Pono, we will explore the interconnectedness of Native Hawaiian food systems and access, nutrition, and sustainability. Through this series, we will attempt to draw connections between traditional Native Hawaiian food and health/well-being.

To start this series, we will take a glance at how kalo, which is also referred to as “The Staff of Life,” has fulfilled this title and the role it plays in Native Hawaiian diet and culture.

From the beginning, we can see the significance of kalo in Native Hawaiian culture. The origin of kalo comes from when the sky father Wākea and earth mother Papa gave birth to their first child Hāloa, who did not survive and was buried.  Fromthe spot he was buried, the first kalo plant sprouted.¹Wākea and Papa had a second child, Hāloanakalaukapalili, whose children became the Hawaiian people. Thus, kalo has come to represent the idea of a family with the main stalk representing the parent and the offshoots as the children.² We can see this even in the etymology of words like ōhana, as the ohā derives from the word for the shoots that sprout from the main kaloplant.¹

Pre-contact, kalo was the primary crop grown in wetlands. By the end of the 19th century, though, the acreage of land devoted to kalo farms had decreased from 50,000 to 30,000, and since 1965, only around 400 acres of land have been devoted to kalofarms.³ After western explorers colonized the Hawaiian Islands, the demand and supply for kalo fell as kūpuna with agricultural knowledge died from diseases that settlers introducedand resources that previously were dedicated togrowing and nurturing kalo were diverted to growing foods like rice and sandalwood for export.⁴

Kalo was also a highly nutritious food and one of the staple carbohydrates in the traditional Native Hawaiian diet. All parts of the kalo plant are edible as the leaves and stems can be cooked as greens and the tubers baked, boiled, mashed, steamed, or cooked.² Additionally, the main corm plant provides potassium, fiber, calcium, and iron, while kalo leaves provide sources of provitamin A carotenoids, vitamins C and B₂, and vitamin B₁.¹ Withthe decreased prevalence of kalo and other traditional Native Hawaiian foods in peoples’ diets came higher rates of obesity and diabetes – issues that Native Hawaiians continue to disproportionately experience today.

It was estimated that, pre-contact, Native Hawaiians ate up to 15 pounds of poi a day.⁵ Over the years, though, the price of taro and poi have been rising as the price of taro rose from 57 cents per pound in 2006 to 62 cents per pound in 2008, and the price of a pound of poi rose from $4 to anywhere between $5 and $7.99 or higher at grocery stores.⁴ Today, a pound of poi at Safeway can cost anywhere from $6.99 to $11.99 or $7.99 to $12.99 at Foodland. This is a lot compared to the average price of a meal in 2020 in Hawai'i, which is estimated at being around $3.39, according to Feeding America.⁶  Asthe prices of traditional foods rise over time, it becomes more difficult for people to incorporate it into their diets when they become unaffordable. This leads people to turn toward purchasing cheaper,oftenless nutritious foods, in turn, impacting their health.

The resounding impacts that a decreased prevalence of and harder access to kalo has had over time demonstrates the important role that food plays in our lives. Over the next couple of months, we will continue exploring topics of food access, nutrition, andfood systems, and how we can connect with food on a deeper level. 

~ Na Maris Tasaka, Communications Assistant


Further Readings/Media


  1. Cho JJ, Yamakawa RA, Hollyer J. 2007. Hawaiian kalo, past and future. Honolulu (HI): University of Hawaii. 8 p. (Sustainable Agriculture; SCM-1).
  2. Lincoln, Noa Kekuewa, and Peter Vitousek. "Indigenous Polynesian Agriculture in Hawaiʻi." Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. 29 Mar. 2017; Accessed 3 Mar. 2021.
  3. Kagawa-Viviani, Aurora; Levin, Penny; Johnston, Edward; Ooka, Jeri; Baker, Jonathan; Kantar, Michael; Lincoln, Noa K. 2018. "I KeĒwe ʻĀina o Ke Kupuna: Hawaiian Ancestral Crops in Perspective" Sustainability 10, no. 12: 4607.
  4. Taro Security and Purity Task Force. 2009, Taro Security and Purity Task Force 2010 Legislative Report.
  5. Mishan, Ligaya. “On Hawaii, the Fight for Taro’s Revival.” The New York Times, 8 Nov. 2019.
  6. “Hunger in Hawaii.” Feeding America
  7. Look, M.A., Soong S., Kaholokula, J.K. (2020). Assessment and Priorities for Health and Well-Being in Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.  Honolulu, HI. Department of Native Hawaiian Health,  John A. Burns School of Medicine, University of Hawai‘i
Pin It

ssw logo new 2021


We are proud to announce that Papa Ola Lōkahi’s Executive Director, Dr. Sheri-Ann Daniels, has been appointed to the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Thompson School of Social Work & Public Health Dean’s Advisory Council.

  Aubrey Hord WEB Sheri Daniels 005 

At the helm of Papa Ola Lōkahi, the Native Hawaiian Health board, since 2016, Dr. Daniels has worked tirelessly over the past year as a co-lead of the Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Hawaiʻi COVID-19 Response, Recovery & Resilience Team since the beginning of last year.  She has been a member of the International Indigenous Council of Healing Our Spirit Worldwide since 2018and since 2019 has served on theAdvisory Council on Minority Health, and HawaiʻDepartment of Health’s Tobacco Prevention & Control Advisory BoardWe are confident she will be a valuable member of the advisory council. 


Jodi 10 12 18 pic 2 revised 1

 Dr. Daniels will be joined by Dr. Jodi Haunani Leslie Matsuoan alumna of the Native Hawaiian Health Scholarship Program, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialistalong with nine other council members.

The School of Social Work & Public Health was named for Myron B. Thompson, an alumnus of the school who also helped establish Papa Ola Lōkahi.  The school is committed to achieving social justice and health equity for the people of Hawaiʻi in a changing world. Its core values are centered around Mālamaike Kanaka Apau, Ulu Pono, and Hoʻokaulike.

We look forward to seeing how Dr. Daniels and Dr. Matsuo help manifest the school’s values and advance its mission, and are excited to see the work they will do as members of the Dean’s Advisory Council.


Pin It

NHHSP Scholars 2021 final

(Kaka‘ako, O‘ahu, Hawai‘i)   The Native Hawaiian Health Scholarship Program announces awards to nine students in medicine, nursing, social work, psychology and dietetics.

“We’re so pleased with the diversity of backgrounds represented by the scholars in this cohort,” exclaims Dr. Sheri Daniels, executive director of Papa Ola Lōkahi, which administers the Native Hawaiian Health Scholarship Program.  

Four (4) are studying in the continental U.S., two (2) in Hilo, two (2) at UH Mānoa and one (1) at Chaminade.  One student is from Molokai, three (3) are from Hawai‘i, two (2) from O‘ahu, one from the continental U.S. and one who claims home both O‘ahu and U.S.

Modeled after the National Health Service Corps, the Native Hawaiian Health Scholarship Program (NHHSP) has been a catalyst in building a workforce knowledgeable, capable and committed to serving the unique needs of Hawaiian communities. Each graduating scholar is obliged, upon completion of study and licensure, to serve full-time in a clinical capacity in medically under-served areas in Hawai'i for a period commensurate with the length of scholarship support.

Since 1991, more than 300 NHHSP awards have been made in 20 different primary and behavioral health care disciplines and even more sub-specialties. More than 200 have been placed into the workforce across six islands impacting the well-being of the communities they serve. More than half of those have chosen to stay in those communities beyond the required service obligation.

“This program has identified individuals committed to their communities by improving the accessibility and acceptability of health care,” shares Dr. Donna-Marie Palakiko, NHHSP director and herself a NHHSP alumna.

“Many of our NHHSP alumni have risen to positions of leadership in the local medical, public health and Hawaiian communities,” Dr. Daniels continues. “Which is exactly what the early Hawaiian health program visionaries hoped for 30 years ago; a competent workforce dedicated to providing day-to-day health care that will contribute to raising the health status of Native Hawaiians and their families.  That’s servant leadership.”


Visit for more information about the Native Hawaiian Health Scholarship Program.                                

The next round of applications is now open through March 15, 2021.

PDF News Release attached

# # #

Pin It
Real time web analytics, Heat map tracking