Sunday, November 13, 2011

Hawaii: First Lady Michelle Obama Offers Advice And Praise During Visit To MA'O Organic Farms

First Lady says job opportunities in farming and food policy are increasing: "It's the most powerful thing"...
On Saturday morning, as the 2011 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit kicked off, First Lady Michelle Obama brought her Let's Move! campaign to the international stage with a tour of MA'O Organic Farms in the Waianae area of Oahu.

As with all of Mrs. Obama's field trips for Let's Move!, the visit spotlighted a very successful program that can serve as a model for others hoping to do the same work in combating obesity through boosting food access and inspiring healthy eating. After her tour with the college-age interns who run the farm, Mrs. Obama sat down for a roundtable discussion on food policy, farming, community action and the long road to creating sustainable change. President Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, was also on hand to listen to Mrs. Obama discuss her signature initiatives. (At top: Mrs. Obama with MA'O student interns Manny Miles and Cheryse Sana during the roundtable)

"I've heard about all that's been going on here for years and years," Mrs. Obama said. "So I jumped at the opportunity to come and not just see for myself, but to also allow the world to see what you all are doing."

"As you know, I planted a little garden in my back yard," she added, referring to her own White House Kitchen Garden. "One of the primary reasons we planted the garden was as a form of education. Our goal is to eliminate childhood obesity in a generation."

Wearing a sleeveless navy blue dress and flats, the First Lady put the students at ease, chatting easily with them around a large wood table. They wore t-shirts with the farm's motto: "No panic, go organic." Mrs. Obama was accompanied by acclaimed local chef Ed Kenney, who will prepare her luncheon on Sunday for APEC Leaders' spouses at Kualoa Ranch. He sits on the farm's advisory board, and said he has been involved with the organization for a decade, teaching the students and using its produce at his Honolulu restaurants Town and Downtown. (Above: During the tour)

MA'O has an intense focus on education: It is a 24.5-acre certified organic farm is run primarily by local youth participating in the Kauhale Youth Education and Entrepreneurship Initiative, who trade a three year commitment to 20 hours of weekly agricultural work in exchange for a full tuition waiver at a local college and a monthly stipend, which often supports entire families. The farm has become a vital part of the surrounding Waianae community, creating jobs and boosting health initiatives in an area that the East Wing says is among the most impoverished in the state. Obesity and other diet related diseases, such as diabetes and heart attacks, are overwhelmingly present in Waianae, as they are in most Native Hawaiian populations. (Above: With Kenney during the tour)

Mrs. Obama told the MA'O farmers that she is very proud of their work, and their project is something she hopes to see replicated across the US.

"We feel like we're just a small part of what you all have been doing for a very long time," Mrs. Obama said. "And it's important to know that it's working. It's sustaining a community, it's creating a conversation, and it's putting young people to work and giving them futures, which is the most powerful thing."

MA'O grows 35-45 varieties of fruits and vegetables that are sold to other top restaurants on the island as well through farmers' markets, retailers and subscriptions. But its mission is larger: To send more Waianae students to college, develop leadership skills that can be applied in any career, and to promote food self-sufficiency in Hawaii, which has incredibly high food prices, thanks to the fact that much of what is eaten on island is flown or shipped in.

Challenges and support...
Mrs. Obama asked the young farmers to explain some of the challenges they've faced. (Above: Viewing the farm's produce cleaning station during the tour)

"Farming is not necessarily the hot thing to do, right?" she said. "So what happens when you hang out with your boys and you tell them, "I'm going to farm! I like arugula." How does that work out?"

Being an organic farmer is "not really the most popular job," admitted 21-year-old Derrick Parker, adding that he's asked by friends when he's going to switch careers.

"They’re like, "So when are you going to get out of that?"" Parker said. "I can't, like, just say it's their fault that they're saying that, or they're trying to bring me down. But it's just that that's how we were raised up -- that's how we were brought up."

Parker is now a music student at the University of Hawaii in addition to being a farmer, and at the First Lady's behest he sang a few bars of a gospel song, to much applause and laughter, in a clip that made the local news.

Getting his family to understand his career choice was the hardest for Manny Miles, who at 27 has worked at MA'O for 9 years, and described himself as "the old fart of all the interns." He's now co-manager of the intern program.

"With my family the biggest challenge was getting them to understand that eating healthy is important," Miles said. "I lost my father three years ago, and my family doesn't want to admit that it was due to his health."

"Definitely, I have faced hardships by being in this program," Maisha Abbot, 21, said, and told a similar story.

But Mrs. Obama offered a bright look at the future for farmers.

"What your families don't understand is that there are -- there will be growing opportunities in not just farming but in policy, in larger discussions in terms of technology," she said.

Mrs. Obama praised the way the MA'O farmers support each other, and pointed out that while ending obesity, eradicating food deserts, and getting more farming cooperatives like MA'O established will be "a heavy lift," the education element that goes on at MA'O is crucial.

"I think that that's one of the most key components of this effort," Mrs. Obama said, and urged the young farmers to inspire others in their community.

"You now have to lift people up, whether it's your own brothers and sisters or the kids down the street, or the students that you're going to teach. It is a responsibility that you all have to embrace, to just keep reaching back."

First Lady advises patience...and a long-term commitment...
Mrs. Obama advised the young farmers to be patient with the pace of change, because it's something that takes a long time.

"I say this, the President says this -- change -- meaningful change does take time. And the thing that I would urge you not to be is so impatient that you give up before you get -- right? Be patient! Because oftentimes we expect things instantaneously."

Mrs. Obama pointed out that that is why Let's Move! has a generational goal, rather than any immediate goals: The time frame for her initiative is decades long.

"It would have been ridiculous for me to say, in 10 years we're going to -- or in 5 years we're going to change the way people have thought about eating and living," Mrs. Obama said.

"The key is to stay the course, and to not let the great be the enemy of the good. I mean, you may not achieve everything that you envision right away, but that doesn't mean you turn around, that doesn't mean you stop. That means you keep pushing it forward, step by step."

Mrs. Obama had parting advice: Woo local politicians, and get more members of the community involved.

"You don’t do this alone. You have to have a coalition of people that represent so many different factions of a community," she said. "Pull other people in. You’ve got -- buy in your local elected officials. Find the foundation leaders out there. Find the businesses that are -- that can help support this. It takes a community to make this happen."

The interns sang Mrs. Obama a farewell song as she prepared to leave, an Oli Mahalo, which is an honorific thank you song in Hawaii. Before she left, Mrs. Obama presented each farmer with a special gift: A box of Presidential M&Ms, featuring President Obama's autograph. She also handed out plenty of hugs. (Above: The First Lady posed with the interns for a group photo before departing)

The full transcript and a video of the roundtable is here.

In the evening, Mrs. Obama joined President Obama in hosting the APEC Leaders Dinner at the Hale Koa Hotel in Honolulu. On Sunday, she will host the spouses luncheon, and on Monday she will host a Joining Forces event at Hickham Ar Force Base.

A video of the roundtable, from Nonstop Honolulu:



*Photos by Ed Morita, Nonstop Honolulu. Click here for more of his photos from APEC.