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Holoiʻa ka papa, kau ʻia e ka manu. Where there is food, people gather.   

Food is central in every culture, fostering traditions and a sense of community, while also providing us with the nutrients we need to live. In ‘Ai Pono, we will explore the interconnectedness of Native Hawaiian food systems and access, nutrition, and sustainability. Through this series, we will attempt to draw connections between traditional Native Hawaiian food and health/well-being.


There are multiple considerations that go into why we make the food choices we do. While someare based off our preferences, much of what goes into the food choices we makedependon factors that are out of our control.

Kaui Baumhofer

An Assistant Professor of Indigenous Health Sciences at the University of Hawaiʻi West OʻahuKauʻiBaumhofer Merritt spoke about the biggest factors influencing our food choices.

She teaches it within the social ecological model illustrated by multiple layers asto why we eat the way we do. There are individual reasons like personal preferences and ʻohana reasons– eating the food your family and the people you live with like, but there are also larger reasons like physical environments – what grocery stores they live by, if they live by a farmers’ market, or if they have a car. There are also larger social cultural reasons why people eat the way they do.

The United Nations defines food security as when people have physical, social, and economic access to foods that are safe, nutritious, and that meet their dietary needs.¹ Achieving food security can be especially difficult for geographically isolated areas like the Hawaiian Islands, which heavily rely on imported foods. A 2020 study found that 27% of Native Hawaiians living in Hawaiʻi were food insecure.² 

In 2018, some of the biggest barriers people in Hawaiʻi experienced in achieving food access were: housing – being houseless or without the means to store or prepare food; a lack of transportation to access food or difficulty transporting groceries; difficulty finding time to shop for groceries amid busy schedules; not having the skills to prepare food; and being socially isolated.³

“For Native Hawaiians, the main barriers are, what's their physical environment, what's physically available to them, whether they have access issues, whether they have a car, issues of affordability, whether they can afford to get the kind of food that they want, and also time – working two to three jobs or having to commute long distances on the bus, and then having to sit down and cook a full meal,” Merritt said.

Merritt said the biggest barriers for Native Hawaiians are centered around three factors – affordability, accessibility, and acceptability.

Affordability is whether people can afford to get the kind of food that they want. Accessibility is the issue of if people have a car to get to restaurants and grocery stores, but also having the time to prepare that food, she said.

“The other issue is acceptability, … because the first two issues can be applied to really any low socioeconomic group. The last one speaks to more cultural ethnic minorities.Do the stores that you live by have the foods that are acceptable to you that you want to eat?” Merritt said.

As a result of these barriers, many may rely on fast food restaurants for their meals. In 2007, a study found that 56.5% of Native Hawaiian participants ate at a fast food restaurant at least once a week.⁴

“There's a big difference between, you choose to go to Starbucks as a treat once in a while … (and) having to eat at Wendy's or L&L every day, because that's what they can afford and that's what they have time to do.”

A study named Hawaiʻi the “Fast Food Capital of America,” estimating the state has 97.5 fast food restaurants per 100,000 people. For comparison, Alaska had the least amount of fast food restaurants per 100,000 people at 61.9.

In the state of Hawaiʻi, there are 64 7-11 locations,⁶ 74 McDonalds locations, and around 85 Starbucks locations.

Hawaiʻi is the fast food capital of the country. But if you look at places where Native Hawaiians are concentrated, that's even stronger. Those of us in those areas will say that Waiʻanae is the fast food capital of Oʻahu.And so if Hawaiʻi is the fast food capital of the nation and Waianae is the fast food capital of Oʻahu, that means Waianae is probably the fast food capital of the nation,” Merritt said. “The higher the concentration of Native Hawaiians in that population, in that community, the higher the density of fast food outlets, and the lower the density of full-service restaurants and full-service grocery stores.”

This is especially notable considering the high rates of chronic health conditions that Native Hawaiians face.  

In an editorialshe wrote for Honolulu Civil Beat, Merritt brought up the term dietary genocide, which she came across in an article by Rodney Jackson. The idea of dietary genocide refers to how the foods that people eat and have access to can contribute to negative health outcomes, such as the ones that disproportionately impact Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

“The Western diet is really wiping out Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and, to a larger extent, other indigenous peoples across the world. … Mainly because of dietary issues and the chronic illnesses related to those dietary issues. … That's the kind of basis of that whole dietary genocide. We're not being killed by infectious diseases like we were ... 150, or 200, or 400 years ago. But we're still dying at just incredibly high rates due to dietary-related diseases.”

Native Hawaiians have the second-highest prevalence of obesity among other race/ethnicity groups in Hawaiʻi at 43%, according to a study done from 2015-2017.¹⁰In 2014, around 12.8% of Native Hawaiians in Hawaiʻi were estimated to have diabetes, compared to 5% of white residents.¹¹

Policy can be another big barrier to achieving food security and access.

“How zoning impacts ... our physical environment, in our neighborhoods, and then if you go even beyond that, there are really big historical factors. And for Native Hawaiians, that goes back to colonization and the … Māhele,” Merritt said.

In 2011, the legislature enacted Senate Bill 101, which allowed producers to sell hand-pounded poi, not requiring that they process poi in a certified food-processing establishment²

“Up until maybe, I think like 10 years ago or 12 years ago, it was illegal to sell hand-pounded poi in a retail setting. The only way to get hand-pounded poi was if you knew someone who pounded for you, and that was not super common. You couldn't even sell it at a farmers market, and it had to do with food safety,” she said. “That's an example of institutional racism. Here's this really nutritional super awesome food, this cultural food, that was illegal for us to sell and make money off of and made it very difficult to get.”

Merritt said there are multiple ways that people can take action and interact with their policymakers. People can go to their neighborhood board meetings or run for neighborhood board.Onopening day at the legislature – which is usually in mid-January – the public see any legislator in charge, introduce themselves, and tell them what they’re interested in. People can also submit online testimony, pick up a phone and call legislators, and even go to testify in person.

“Other ways that you can support Hawai‘i agriculture and food security and food policy if you don't want to interface with the system either in getting involved in the neighborhood board or actually talking to your legislators is just to vote with your dollars. That's probably one of the most immediate and powerful ways that we can support ‘ai pono and local food is voting with your dollars.

 ~ Na Maris Tasaka, Communications Assistant


KauʻiBaumhofer Merritt was born and raised in the ahupuaʻa of ʻAiea. She is an Assistant Professor of Indigenous Health Sciences at the University of Hawaiʻi West Oʻahu. She received her doctorate of science in society, human development, and health from Harvard University, her MPH in health behavior and health education from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, her master's in Pacific Islands studies from University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and her BA in ethnic studies from Mills College. Her research focuses on public health to reduce Native Hawaiian health disparities as they relate to social justice. 

Further Readings/Media



  1. “Water and Food Security.” United Nations,,a%20productive%20and%20healthy%20life
  2. Stuplebeen, David A, et al. University of Hawaiʻi Office of Public Health Studies, 2020, pp. 1–22, Food Insecurity in Hawaiʻi Using a Population-Based Sample: A Data Brief.  
  3. “The Fast Food Capitals of America.”   
  4. Ahedo, A. M., T. W. Lee, J. Pan, K. M. Heinrich, S. Keller, and J. Maddock. “Factors Affecting the Consumption of Away-from-Home Foods in Hawai`i Residents”. Californian Journal of Health Promotion, Vol. 5, no. 2, June 2007, pp. 1-12, doi:10.32398/cjhp.v5i2.1227.
  5. “The Fast Food Capitals of America.” NiceRx,    
  6. “Locations.” Seven-Eleven Hawaiʻi, 2020,
  7. Hill, Tiffany. “Talk Story: Brad Miles of McDonald’s Restaurants of Hawaii.” Hawaii Business Magazine, 11 Jan. 2019,
  8. “Starbucks Store Locator.” Starbucks.,-101.337891,5z.
  9. Baumhofer, N. Kaui. “Hawaii's Moment Of Critical Consciousness Raising.” Honolulu Civil Beat, 18 June 2020,
  10. Look, M.A., Soong S., Kaholokula, J.K. (2020). Assessment and Priorities for Health and Well-Being in Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. Honolulu, HI. Department of Native Hawaiian Health, John A. Burns School of Medicine, University of Hawai‘i.
  11. Uchima, Olivia et al. “Disparities in Diabetes Prevalence Among Native Hawaiians/Other Pacific Islanders and Asians in Hawai'i.” Preventing chronic disease vol. 16 E22. 21 Feb. 2019, doi:10.5888/pcd16.180187.
  12. 2011.
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