Investing in the power of community and healthy food in Maui

Growing healthy food in Maui

In many parts of the world, food and community go hand-in-hand. And on the island of Maui, this comes together in a unique program that helps reduce rates of diabetes, all while boosting production of locally farmed food.

UnitedHealthcare Catalyst combines community health data and outcome-based local solutions to bear in order to help tackle high-priority health care challenges — in this instance, chronic diseases, such as diabetes.

Diabetes is an issue in Hawai‘i, with 11% of the adult population diagnosed with diabetes and an additional 37% with prediabetes. There are also disparities for rates of diabetes for Native Hawai‘ians and Pacific Islanders vs. the rest of the population. What’s more, the poverty rate in Maui county has increased 70% since 2021, creating a significant barrier to accessing affordable nutritious food.

A community-led initiative

Through collective input at the grassroots, the Catalyst program helped bring community partners together in order to tackle this growing challenge. Mālama I Ke Ola Health Center, a federally qualified health center, identified patients living with diabetes or at risk of developing diabetes and enrolled them in a cohort group to receive boxes of fresh produce from local farmers — grown at the farms of Kanu Ka ‘Ike and the aquaponics program, WaiPono Farm, at the University of Hawai‘i – Maui College.

In turn, the patients also learn how the food can positively affect their health and take classes on how to cook meals using the produce they receive.

“I want them to leave these classes knowing that they have a place to be able to share their experiences, ask questions, be able to maybe even share their frustrations about diabetes because it's a very difficult and challenging disease state,” said Nadia Hussain, registered dietician at Mālama I Ke Ola Health Center. “I want them to be able to know that they have a support system here, that they are able to also get fresh produce that they may not be able to get anywhere else.”

Food production itself is a challenge in Hawai‘i. With 85-90% of its food imported from outside the state, there is a strong need to increase production of locally farmed food.

From farm to table

The fresh produce is grown in two locations. First is Kanu Ka ‘Ike, which combines Hawai‘ian indigenous farming techniques with modern day insights in a methodology known as poly-forestry. This involves highlighting biodiversity with many different types of plants, not just a monocrop.

“One of the values that's taught to me growing up was you are what you eat and you are what you consume,” said Kekoa Hewahewa, owner and co-founder of Kanu Ka ‘Ike. “And we understand as Native Hawai‘ians, it's not only what you consume physically with food, but what you consume spiritually, emotionally and psychologically.”

The second source, at the WaiPono aquaponics program at the University of Hawai‘i – Maui College, takes a different approach, but one still rooted in the community. The aquaponics and hydroponics greenhouse creates a closed loop with the water for growing produce filtered through fish, micro-organisms and the produce itself. They are able to grow everything from leafy produce like kalo and Bok choy to tomatoes and carrots. Ensuring cultural alignment was a key component of the program, making it crucial to work with local farmers who grow Hawai‘ian crops. 

The UnitedHealthcare Catalyst program is seeing results:

  • Food production at the WaiPono aquaponics program has increased 83% according to Nicolette van Der Lee, WaiPono director1
  • 30% of patients in the Mālama I Ke Ola Health Center program are seeing improved outcomes, including in blood pressure readings and hemoglobin A1C measurements
  • Kanu Ka’Ike has harvested over 1,000 pounds of kalo, which is used to make poi — a Hawai‘ian staple

“We know that this is actually making a direct impact on our community's health by providing access to this fresh produce,” said Kalani Redmayne, CEO, UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Hawai‘i. “We shared data with each other, and together we determined that food insecurity as well as how food impacts health would be a good program for us to implement.”

The United Health Foundation also contributed $500,000 to those affected by the Maui wildfires, half of which went to the Maui Food Bank.

The Catalyst program would not work without local expertise, those who have a unique relationship to the land and are embedded within the culture. And with the food this land and its people produce, UnitedHealthcare Catalyst is able to make an impact not only with reducing the rates of diabetes, but the overall health of a community. 

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