Cultivating Connection: Alyson’s Story
For Alyson Hiapo, gaining access to more fresh, local produce means reconnecting with health and ‘āina.
Chances are, you’ll find Alyson Hiapo in her māla.
“In Hawaiian, ‘māla’ means garden,” she explains. “In my garden, I like to propagate native Hawaiian plants. I collect seeds or cuttings wherever I go.”
At her home in Wai‘anae, Alyson walks through her māla, pointing to pots big and small, with Hawaiian plants sprouting from each. She stops near a large leafy kalo plant — its giant heart-shaped leaves lazily swaying in the breeze.
“Kalo is a traditional Hawaiian crop,” Alyson explains. “Native Hawaiians have grown it for thousands of years. We make poi from it.”
Born and raised on O‘ahu, food was an important part of Alyson’s experience growing up.
“When my mother did buy poi, I was the one who would help her stir it in the bowl,” she said. “She taught me how to take it out of the bag the right way.”
Alyson has fond memories of eating poi and other traditional Hawaiian foods with her family.
“I don’t want to lose that comfort feeling of eating those foods,” she said.
But after her husband passed away, and Alyson retired last June, she was faced with the possibility of not being able to afford local, fresh produce — because of how much it costs while living on a fixed income.
“It’s a loss of security,” Alyson said.
Yet, through that loss, Alyson found gain. She signed up for the pilot food subscription program through ‘Elepaio Social Services, which is working with Hawai‘i Foodbank to provide access to fresh, locally grown produce to people in the Wai‘anae community.
“It was such a relief,” she said. “Knowing that I would have that constant support for healthy eating.”
In the program, Alyson received $250 per month to use at two local farmers markets to purchase whatever produce she wants — which is not something she’d be able to do otherwise.
Despite being an ancient Hawaiian farming community, much of the produce grown in Wai‘anae now goes to high-end restaurants or resorts on the island, making locally grown produce hard to find or prohibitively expensive.
“A lot of the produce that does get consumed [in Wai‘anae] comes from the mainland,” said Alicia Higa, the interim executive director of ‘Elepaio Social Services. “One of the things we’re striving to do is to connect people to food that’s grown in our own backyard.” For Alyson, access to locally-grown produce at the farmers market not only means healthy food — it means reconnecting with native Hawaiian food.
“My mom would always buy some special food for our birthday dinner,” Alyson remembers. “And we got to tell her what we wanted, and I always asked for poi. It’s a native food, but it’s one of the most expensive items on the island. I didn’t buy poi before being on the subscription program.”
And, it means more time in her māla.
“I’m trying to make my body stronger because I want to continue working in my garden and continue going on hikes. So I need to eat right.”