“Ka Honua Momona” means the fat or bountiful earth. On the small, Hawaiian island of Molokai, a homegrown organization called Ka Honua Momona (KHM) International is reconnecting local people to the land, to their culture and to each other. Founded in 2003 by residents who share a desire to return to the abundance of Molokai’s ancestors, KHM strives to be a model of sustainability from the mountains to the sea.
“Our holistic model engages families on everything from breastfeeding, or first food, to the importance of healthy lifestyles, to learning about where one’s food comes from,” says Noelani Yamashita, executive director of KHM. “It’s all related.”
KHM is guided by five core principles: cultural rootedness, environmental stewardship, intergenerational sharing, lifelong learning, health and well-being.
A holistic approach to health
Hundreds of years ago Molokai’s ancestors subsisted on fish, native plants and crops they grew themselves. They were in good health and cared for the environment that nurtured them. Yet today many adults and children suffer from chronic illnesses such as obesity and heart disease. Many don’t interact with or understand the origins of their food. When children are asked where the salmon they eat comes from, some say, “the grocery store.”
This prompted KHM to work with renowned Uncle Herbert Hoe to adopt his `Ai Pono program and develop KHM’s version; teaching adults and children about their food. KHM’s ‘Ai Pono program seeks to reduce chronic illness and, at the same time, increase cultural pride by returning to a diet centered on traditional Hawaiian foods and learning about the community’s role as food producers. Tying together culture, food and health have been powerful ways to reclaim the well-being of Molokai’s people and traditional practices.
Supporting a healthy lifestyle from day one
Efforts to address Molokai’s health led to launching a first food program focused on their youngest community members: their babies. With funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, KHM initially engaged eight families in community learning opportunities about breastfeeding over 13 weeks. Yamashita even enrolled her own family to participate in the pilot.
KHM’s first food program, Nu`akea (named after Molokai’s goddess of lactation), is centered on regular community gatherings. First, the mothers meet, giving them opportunities to share breastfeeding stories and talk with a lactation expert about their questions and concerns. Subsequent meetings involve families, including fathers and grandparents, who play a critical role in supporting breastfeeding. Each week carries a different theme, from learning about and preparing traditional foods like poi, sweet potato and seaweed that increase breast milk production, to understanding how native plants can be used in healing.
Sharing meals is an essential part of meetings, grounding participants in Molokai traditions. KHM also engages community chefs to cook the meals, making sure there is enough food for families to enjoy at home as well.
To counter barriers such as negative perceptions of breastfeeding and lack of partner support, KHM hires a professional photographer to take beautiful images of moms breastfeeding so that they themselves feel good about breastfeeding and their partners are more supportive. KHM also engages males respected in the community to mentor young fathers, helping new dads take pride in their roles as equal caregivers and learn how to best support their partners with breastfeeding.
With subsequent Nu`akea sessions, KHM plans to build upon successes from the pilot and make adjustments based insights from program participants and community partners.
Achieving collective well-being
Coming together as families and a community to better the lives of the youngest members has created a more collaborative environment for everyone, including Yamashita. Prior to the birth of her first child, Yamashita was working more than 70-hour weeks. She struggled to practice KHM’s health and well-being principle. Now, through KHM’s shared leadership model, she splits responsibilities and has achieved more work-life balance. Yamashita believes the five core principles have been integral to KHM’s first food program success.
“When people come into our programs, they start at different places and work through the five principles, eventually leading them to sustained health,” Yamashita explains. “We see this as similar to how we make our traditional fishing nets; over time, we weave a strong net through our experiences, knowledge sharing and connections. This net is then cast into the sea and reaps abundance, symbolizing our becoming wise elders.”
With this vision, KHM plans to continue its first food efforts to spread knowledge about practicing good health from the start.