The Beginning of Backyard Aquaponics Research in Waimānalo

In 2005, Ilima Ho-Lastimosa began a grassroots non-profit organization called God's Country Waimanalo (GCW). Their mission is to propagate and perpetuate the Hawaiian culture by incorporating the following values:

  1. Kuleana – privilege, responsibility,

  2. Malama – to care for, protect, and maintain,

  3. ‘Ike Pono – to know, see, feel, and understand, and

  4. Ha‘aha‘a – humility and humbleness.

Many of the GCW programs focused on Hawaiian culture, wholistic wellness, and food sovereignty. In 2009, Ilima met Dr. Clyde Tamaru and Dr. Kai Fox from Windward Community College who were working on aquaponics technology. She collaborated with them to bring aquaponics into Waimānalo and began running workshops to teach families how to build and maintain backyard aquaponics systems. She also taught the families how to cook the plants and fish grown in the systems as well as to make lāʻau with the herbs. Since then, she assisted over 200 Native Hawaiian families with building backyard aquaponics systems to increase their access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish.

Dr. Jane Chung-Do and Dr. Phoebe Hwang, who have been working with GCW since they were public health graduate students, supported these aquaponics efforts in Waimānalo by conducting surveys, interviews, and focus groups with the participating families to document the benefits of this initiative. They found that aquaponics resonates with participants because it resembles the ahupua‘a, a system that ancient Native Hawaiians developed to sustainably grow plants and fish, which ran from the mountain to the sea.

"Aquaponics resonates with participants because it resembles the ahupua‘a."

Two follow-up studies revealed that the family aquaponics systems increased the family membersʻ access to and intake of fresh fruits and vegetables by 78% and fish by 52%. It also gave the participants more confidence in preparing a healthy meal and become more active in land conservation and protection efforts because of their engagement with aquaponics. Further, the positive impacts of aquaponics systems occurred through multiple generations within a family. Although these sample sizes are small, the findings suggest that backyard aquaponics is culturally-relevant and may be effective in promoting healthy eating and reducing obesity risks in Native Hawaiian and indigenous communities.

In 2014, Ilima Ho-Lastimosa became the Community Coordinator for the Waimanalo Learning Center of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources with Dr. Ted Radovich. Her role has been to promote community engagement in agriculture and food production through a Native Hawaiian lens. Through her role, they have built a community aquaponics system and implemented multiple aquaponics workshop, thereby increasing the community capacity and interest in aquaponics. In 2018, Jane, Ilima, Ted, and Phoebe received a pilot National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities grant from Ola HAWAII though the John A. Burns School of Medicine to systematically test backyard aquaponics as a public health intervention. Thus, the MALAMA Research Study was born. Ten Native Hawaiian families from Waimānalo were recruited as Hui 1 and participated in a series of workshops. These workshops taught them to build and maintain their own backyard aquaponics system and to cook and make lāʻau from the plants and fish they grow. Preliminary results suggest that their participation in MALAMA increased their intake of fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish, enhanced family and community connectedness, and lowered their risks to cardiovascular diseases.

At the end of 2018, the team received additional funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Interdisciplinary Research Leaders Fellowship to continue building on their pilot findings and enhance their professional development in research, community engagement, policy, and leadership. This funding has allowed the recruitment of 20 more Native Hawaiian families from Waimānalo who were recruited into Hui 2 and Hui 3. This will allow the MALAMA crew to continue measuring the impacts and benefits of MALAMA with the goal of expanding it pae ʻāina and beyond. In 2020, Queenʻs Health Systems provided funding to help us create the MALAMA manual to expand our reach.

Recognizing the community-driven origins of this effort, the MALAMA Study became a part of Ke Kula Nui O Waimānalo (KKNOW), (http://www.kekulanuiowaimanalo.org/) which is a grassroots non-profit in Waimānalo with the mission to provide a community of practice through the collaboration of Kānaka to promote strong and healthy ahupuaʻa. In 2021, KKNOW was awarded funding from the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to expand MALAMA to Pāʻupena Community Development Corporation in Upcountry Maui and Piʻihonua Hawaiian Homestead Association in Hilo as well as start Waimānalo Hui 4 with the Waimānalo Hawaiian Homestead Association. We are excited to continue sharing MALAMA with more communities with the goal of bringing families and communities together to grow our own food and build community resilience.