Kipahulu Kitchen : A recipe for community

Maui No Ka Oi Magazine
Spring, April 2006


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.

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.

About 15 years ago, John Lind, then vice president of the Kipahulu Community Association, offered the Kalena land for a school the association wanted to start so young children wouldn’t have to ride a school bus into Hana town each day.

As it happened, the school ended up elsewhere, but eventually this connection resulted in the construction of a kitchen that will benefit both groups—the native Hawaiians of Pohaku, whose ancestors have lived in Kipahulu for generations, and the newcomers from other parts of the world who bought pieces of this verdant land hoping to live a rural, agricultural lifestyle.

“We wanted a certified kitchen a long time ago,” says Tweetie Lind. The Linds and Minn were especially interested in finding a place to process taro, because through another organization, the Kipahulu ‘Ohana, they operate the Kapahu Living Farm on Haleakala National Park land mauka (inland) of the Pools at ‘Ohe’o. The ‘Ohana has cleared and replanted about two dozen ancient taro patches, or lo’i.

Besides taro, Lind says, there are plentiful supplies of bamboo shoots, ‘ulu (breadfruit), mango, guavas, and coconuts in Kipahulu, but nowhere to process these raw materials for retail sale. Even products like dehydrated bananas and papayas cannot legally be sold anywhere but in a certified kitchen meeting Department of Health standards for commercial use.

The first funds for the kitchen project came in 1996, when Lisa Hamilton, then on the board of the Kipahulu Community Association, was in town for a County Council meeting, and on impulse asked for a $10,000 grant for a water-catchment system. That funding went to make the first portion of a roof to collect rainwater. Then “it really kind of evolved over time,” Hamilton recalls. “It became obvious we weren’t just talking about washing taro on a concrete floor. We wanted to go another step in adding shelf life and value.”

Most of the funding in the years since has come from the County, with some from fundraisers and from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). Labor and skills came from members of the community, with neighbor Rich von Wellsheim providing informal supervision. Students from the Hana High School program called Ma ka Hana ka Ike (through doing one learns) lent the building skills they were learning at school from teacher Rick Rutiz, also a Kipahulu resident.  

Now the stainless-steel sinks and eight-burner Wolf range are installed, solar panels are on the roof, and permits are in order. An OHA grant is paying for research into a possible solar-powered icemaker. The tall roof built to designer Bruce Hopper’s specifications covers a kitchen and an open concrete-floored area where farm equipment can drive in to drop off a load of fresh produce.

Installing a certified kitchen is complicated any time, but it’s been quite a challenge in this isolated area, says project coordinator Scott Crawford. With no power lines reaching the area, electricity must come from photovoltaic panels. There is no county water line, so potable water will be stored in 250-gallon tanks on trailers, filled at a county water outlet 15 minutes away.

Crawford says the kitchen should be ready to use this spring. Now the neighbors who worked together on construction are developing protocols for efficient and harmonious sharing of the new facility. The Kipahulu community is using a manual borrowed from a certified community kitchen in Wai’anae on O’ahu as a template for rules on things like clean-up requirements, work scheduling, and how to charge for water and propane use.

All involved emphasize that, though the sign outside says “Kalena Center,” this is not a traditional community center, a place for parties, weddings, and baby lu’au. It is a place for work, located in an agricultural district with residents nearby who value their peaceful isolation.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a focal point for the neighborhood. From the beginning, the idea was that “it would become an anchor for the whole community,” says Hamilton.

The interaction Kalena Center’s construction required among segments of the community that might not otherwise spend much time together has been important, says Crawford. “There is a connection between the newcomers and the Hawaiians, and the spirit of working together.”

Tweetie Lind agrees. “What’s good about it is that we were working together, getting to know each other. We’re Hawaiians, and we work with our community. This has brought the community even tighter.”

The neighbors plan to continue getting together at their new kitchen every Thanksgiving, just as they have done during the years when they worked to raise the roof and walls. Next year, food cooked in the kitchen will be part of the feast.