How this innovative food festival in Hawaii is giving back to the environment

Lifestyle

Ocean view from Kuoloa RanchOcean view from Kuoloa Ranch — Photo courtesy of Marla Ciimini

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Pulling weeds in the hot sun was never one of my favorite activities, but that’s exactly what I was doing on the island of Oahu in Hawaii last fall. More accurately, we were “clearing land,” as our guide explained to us during an immersive volunteer activity on the sprawling Kualoa Ranch, a 4,000-acre private nature reserve.

This educational (and surprisingly fun!) experience was arranged by the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival. So, my husband and I, together with a small group of chefs, food professionals and attendees, participated in an early morning hike where we learned about taro cultivation while working together to re-direct a small stream and re-plant seedlings in beautiful natural surroundings. Overall, it was a memorable learning experience with breathtaking views – and it turned out to be an enlightening and motivating way to start our day.

Blending culinary events with immersive volunteer experiences, The Hawaii Food and Wine Festival (HFWF) is inspiring festival guests to become more actively involved with sustainability and learn about how to care for the ocean as well as the land. By remaining actively involved in the community, this organization shows they are about much more than elegant dining events showcasing world-class chefs.

Now in its 12th year, the HFWF was founded by CEO Denise Yamaguchi along with award-winning chefs Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong. This robust organization’s annual event attracts chefs and food-lovers from Hawaii and across the world – and most importantly, gives back to the islands on an ongoing basis.

HFWF CEO Denise Yamaguchi and HFWF co-founder chef Roy Yamaguchi with volunteers in the taro patch at Papahana KualoaHFWF CEO Denise Yamaguchi and HFWF co-founder chef Roy Yamaguchi with volunteers in the taro patch at Papahana Kualoa — Photo courtesy of Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, Makaha Studios

As the Hawaii Food and Wine fest evolved, the organization has identified ways to connect chefs, food and beverage experts, and festival participants directly with local culinary culture. In 2021, as visitors made a more conscious return to Hawaii during the pandemic, the festival’s organizers created several new educational, culinary-focused volunteer activities. They center on the importance of caring for the land and ocean, as well as giving back through linking culinary talent with promoting diverse agricultural abundance and the natural environment.

“At the core, our festival is about sustainability,” explains Denise Yamaguchi. “The Hawaiians were once 100% sustainable, so it was important that we tell that story from a cultural and historical perspective. Over the years, we’ve seen how the festival and its participants can have a positive impact on helping these organizations. This sensibility is grounded in the same values we have always held – promoting our diverse agricultural abundance, exceptional culinary talent and stunning natural environment.”

Chef Alan Wong wheeling the invasive species out of Mālama Loko EaChef Alan Wong wheeling the invasive species out of Mālama Loko Ea — Photo courtesy of Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, Makaha Studios

In 2021, the festival’s Mālama ‘Āina theme aligned perfectly with Hawai‘i Tourism Authority’s own campaign, “Mālama Hawai‘i” that debuted last year. It encourages visitors to actively learn about sustainability and participate in volunteer experiences to preserve and uplift the islands. Components of these activities across the islands include planting new seedlings, removing invasive species of plants, fishpond work projects, harvesting crops, learning about culture, beach clean-ups and more.

Jay Talwar, Chief Marketing Officer for Hawaiʻi Tourism United States, explained, “Our Mālama Hawaiʻi initiative aims to attract visitors who care about perpetuating the beauty and culture of the place they are visiting. It is a cause that resonates throughout our islands and industry, and we’re proud of partners like the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival that have incorporated voluntourism opportunities within their programming.”

A few of the unique experiences created by the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival this past fall involved a number of organizations, including Papahana Kuaola and Paepae o Heeia, two nonprofits that have been longtime HFWF partners. Both are Hawaii-based educational-focused agricultural organizations with a multitude of programs.

Here are some examples of these experiences:

  • Working with Papahana Kuaola, an entity that connects the community with the natural environment. This experience involves prepping, weeding and harvesting taro.
  • Joining Paepae o He’eia, a group dedicated to rehabilitating the ancient He’eia Fishpond on Oahu. The volunteers learn about the pond’s ecosystem, redistribute rock and coral, remove invasive mangrove and limu (seaweed), and help to reconstruct the fishpond wall.
  • Volunteering with Kuleana Coral, a group devoted to restoring coral reefs around Oahu. Participants learn how to label coral for preservation while discovering the importance of restoring reefs.

Marla Cimini (author) with Chris Grova volunteering at Kuoloa RanchMarla Cimini (author) with Chris Grova volunteering at Kuoloa Ranch — Photo courtesy of Marla Cimini

Yamaguchi explained, “It was awesome that this year we were able to partner with so many others doing amazing work to promote and further food, conservation and environmental sustainability throughout the islands. We, along with our chefs, attendees and stakeholders gained so much through the volunteer activities in the lo’i (water taro patch) and on the shorelines. Our chef partners are the bloodline of the festival and we appreciate their willingness to learn more about our islands. With firsthand experiences like Mālama ‘Āina, they become advocates for food sustainability and our ambassadors for Hawai’i.”

She added, “Mālama ‘Āina was a huge success and highlighted our core values of sustainability, education and responsibility. For 2022, the festival plans to continue its volunteer activities. We want to build on what we achieved this past year of fostering a greater appreciation for Hawaii’s natural resources by educating residents and visitors about our collective responsibility to care for the land.”

In the fall of 2022, the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival will be offering a number of new and interesting volunteer experiences. Guests can sign up in advance. The festival’s events are scheduled for late October and early November on three of Hawaii’s islands: Maui, Hawaii and Oahu. Be sure to check the festival’s website for updates.

The taro fields at HoʻokuaʻāinaThe taro fields at Hoʻokuaʻāina — Photo courtesy of Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, Makaha Studios

Interested in volunteering? There are a number of hotels in Hawaii that offer volunteer programs for guests to learn about sustainability, including:

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