By Rob Parsons
Adorned in stylish pink-rimmed sunglasses to avert the July midday sun, Kihei Elementary second-grader Dawna held hands with Governor Neil Abercrombie as she led him across the sunny courtyard to their school garden.
“See right there, Governor,” Dawna asked her new friend, “over by that tree? That’s where I planted my eggplant!”
A small entourage gathered for the occasion relished the poignant moment of youth meeting with Hawai‘i’s top elected official, in a setting that speaks volumes about growing sustainable futures and healthy communities.
Back in May, the visiting governor and his staff, on Maui to address graduation exercises for University of Hawai‘i, Maui Campus, enjoyed a healthy luncheon prepared by chefs Dan Fiske and Brian Etheridge, sponsors for the South Maui School Gardens Project. Much of the meal comprised vegetables and herbs grown in the Kihei Elementary School garden. Students and advisors at the event shared a letter with Governor Abercrombie, encouraging statewide support and funding for school gardens in Hawai‘i. It included a list of “six things you can do to help school gardens thrive in Hawai‘i.”
“I now use this in all my sustainability talks,” said Abercrombie, sitting at the head of the table, underneath a tent set up for the midsummer luncheon. “I’m not trying to create a romantic human interest story here. School gardens should not be seen as an exotic sidelight—we need an everyday, mainstream understanding that this is the way it should be.”
Indeed, the Maui School Garden Network now comprises 40 participating schools. And the Kihei Elementary School Garden, begun three years ago, is a poster child of success for integrating teachers, students, parents, volunteers and sponsors to create a vital community resource.
The involvement of professional chefs like Fiske provides an important link to show that gardens and locally grown food are more than a novelty, and can offer a blueprint for good health, nutrition, self-sufficiency and culinary creativity.
“Without Dan, I don’t know that our program would be anywhere near where it is today,” proclaimed Kirk Surry, who oversees the Kihei School garden. Chef Dan has a close link with local organic gardeners, said Surry, and, “he traded in his chef’s coat for overalls this summer.” Every Monday, Fiske took time to mentor 50 kids from the YMCA Camp Nalu program, sharing his contagious enthusiasm for growing and cooking locally.
Hailing from Vermont, Fiske grew up in a kitchen, as his mom was a baker, with a business so popular it was written up in the New York Times year after year. “I’m basically from a really small town that knew about prosciutto and fresh mozzarella,” he grinned.
After working all through high school, he enrolled with the threeyear program at the Colorado Mountain Culinary Institute at Keystone Resort. “That’s one of the best things I ever did,” stated Fiske.
Arriving on Maui with little more than a backpack 12 years ago, Chef Dan quickly found work and soon gravitated upcountry to Michael McCoy’s Aina Lani Farms. He began lending a hand with their successful operation that specializes in Fresh Island Herbs and micro-greens—celery, mustard, wasabi, radish and amaranth sprouts and pea shoots, picked young and alive, and bursting with flavor.
At the farm Fiske met Etheredge, a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. The two opened Capische at the Hotel Wailea, a consistent award-winning dining establishment featuring a Northern Italian cuisine and exquisite wines. Though still close friends and colleagues, Fiske left Capische after a few years and struck out on his own. His passion for preparing foods that are grown, raised and caught locally led him into his present occupation as a private chef.
Fiske prepares items on site with foods gathered, picked or caught just hours before an event. His own yard, an expansive property in Haiku, features 20-year-old lychee and citrus trees, a chicken coop and a large garden where he harvests much of the fresh flavorings he needs, including lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil.
“I’m out of the box as far as most chefs,” he said. “What I offer is like having a restaurant in your very own home.
“I’m incredibly fortunate to work for some clients that appreciate my food so much that they fly me around the world,” he noted. Indeed, Fiske was off-island and unable to attend the humble-yet-elegant luncheon for the governor’s recent visit.
In his absence, Chefs Etheredge and Chris Coulis concocted a sumptuous meal, drawing largely on food from the Kihei School Garden. The gourmet spread included: Crostini with Eggplant Caponata, Grilled Vegetable Salad with Surfing Goat Dairy Feta Cheese, Kihei School Garden Bruschetta, Cucumber Salad, Spicy Kale and Swiss Chard Chips and Lemongrass Lilikoi Verbena Tea.
Second-grade teacher Alana Kaopuiki-Pellegrino brought poi and luau leaf from two kinds of kalo (taro) grown at the school, and harvested the day before. Alana and her husband, Hokuao, have been working to restore 12 taro lo‘i on family land in Waikapu at Noho‘ana Farm, and he has become a cultural advisor and kumu (teacher) for the school garden.
“Alana was the first teacher to embrace the garden back in 2008,” said Surry. “The following year, there were 26 teachers involved, and 650 students. We now have about 10,000 square feet being cultivated, around a quarter acre.” He noted that much of their work focuses on building the soil, adding seaweed and cover crops of buckwheat and adzuki beans that are later tilled in to enrich the garden beds.
Surry helped launch the project while volunteering with South Maui Sustainability, and it has now branched into its own nonprofit.
“It’s so exciting,” Surry enthused, “ to see the kids actually learn by doing, outside the classroom and outside the lesson plan.”
“This is one way that we can teach eating healthy,” said Nio Kindla, the school gardens project manager. “Some of these kids have had music, art and gym classes cut from school curriculum. They are in a box with fluorescent lights and air-conditioning unless we can provide opportunities like this.”
The garden received start-up funding through a grant from the County of Maui. Fiske and Etheredge each contribute a healthy chunk of their income each month to support the South Maui School Garden Project, enabling Surry to earn a part-time income while growing something even larger than the garden itself—community.
“Entertaining on a personal level with clients provides me the opportunity to encourage clients to support the South Maui School Gardens Project,” said Fiske. “We hope to inspire other business leaders and community members to join us in this endeavor, through the Chefs School Garden Cooperative and community volunteering.”
“School gardens, community gardens, farmers’ markets—they are all keys to sustainability,” Abercrombie said as he finished his lunch. “Not everyone cheers at innovation, but this administration is dedicated to partnering to make these things happen.”
Rising to view a display board of photos, and to pose for pictures with the group, the visiting elected official with the vision for sustainability and partnerships inadvertently left his wide-brimmed straw hat on his chair.
“Governor, Governor!” his young admirer Dawna called after him.
“You forgot your hat!”