Perhaps the most amazing thing about the tall new building in remote Kipahulu is simply that it is finished.
Volunteers have worked for years to build this community-operated commercial kitchen, native Hawaiians and transplants from many lands pooling talents and labor to create a facility where they could process their agricultural products. The building could easily have ended up like many another utopian project on Maui, rotting away, half-built, under a creeping cloak of jungle. But the Kipahulu community has tenaciously stayed on target, pitching in on workdays, celebrating Thanksgiving each year with a giant potluck party, finding about $150,000 from various sources to finance construction.
Inside Kipahulu’s kitchen, residents are building a sense of community based on innovation and Hawaiian culture.
The community’s effort has followed the vision of native Hawaiians John and Tweetie Lind and their friend Mike Minn. They realized in the mid-‘70s that “farming is the way to go if we want to keep our land the way it is, with no development,” says Tweetie Lind today.
Thirty years later, poi, the ancient staple food of the Islands, will be the primary product of the agricultural processing plant that is the long-term result of that realization. Made from the tuber, or corm, of the taro plant, poi has great cultural significance for the Hawaiian people. Yet in modern Hawai‘i, the food that sustained an entire population has become scarce and expensive.
Kipahulu, once the breadbasket of East Maui, is Maui’s most isolated community. Remote and off the grid, this water-rich area between Hana and Kaupo is connected to the rest of the island by the narrow and winding Hana Highway. Jobs are scarce out here.
For Kipahulu families who want to stay on ancestral land, growing taro could be the answer. But as with many crops, it is far more profitable to sell a “value-added” product like poi than a raw commodity, and that requires a certified kitchen.
In addition to the area’s native Hawaiians, the residents of Kipahulu these days include a cosmopolitan collection of folks from diverse backgrounds. Along with the traditional foods of Hawai‘i, the kitchen they built together will produce a range of products from salads to salsa, all packaged for retail sale and “branded” with modern marketing methods.
“I think we’ve got a good thing going,” says Tweetie Lind. The Linds and Mike Minn founded the Hana District Pohaku Corporation in the 1970s in order to acquire a lease on state land at a Kipahulu area known as Kalena, intending to farm there. But they had no money for farming equipment, and found loans hard to come by.