Two weeks ago I stood in the checkout line at Louisville’s Whole Foods. Sleet, freezing rain and snow were predicted for the next day.

(I knew ahead of time that I would have to pay a price for spending ten warm and sun-drenched days in tropical Hawaii.) The forecast sounded terrible. I imagined even worse—like two feet of ice and eight feet of snow. But two inches of measurable snow and a string of days in the single digits arrived on schedule.)

The checkout girl asked me about the mysterious root vegetables I’d just plucked from the produce section. She knew her root crops. Turnips, parsnips and golden beets were easy for her, but she was stumped by the Costa Rican taro corms. She rolled her eyes and said, “Taro, that’s a first.” She’d never rung up a charge for taro roots—not an everyday commodity in the Ohio Valley.

I had visited Dean Wilhelm a few days before. Dean, a native Hawaiian, practically has taro in his blood. Native Hawaiians revere taro (Colocasia esculenta). Also known as kalo, taro is an essential part of Hawaiian culture.

Dean and Michelle Wilhelms’s non-profit, Hoʻokuaʻāina, serves at-risk kids. For the last ten years the Wilhelms have offered “taropy” as a way forward. A personal breakthrough stirred their desire to help others. Character and self-esteem for at-risk kids are developed with mentoring and taro on a marshy two-and-a-half-acre patch (lo‘i) on the Wilhelms’s seven-and-a-half-acre Kapalai farm in Maunawili, near Kailua, on the island of Oahu.

The name Hoʻokuaʻāina refers to the organization’s dedication to keep Hawaiian traditions and values alive by building community and passing on ancient knowledge to future generations.

Social critics as diverse as David Brooks, Michael Pollan, Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry have written about the important connection between family, community and food. In many American towns there are children who have never eaten with a fork or knife. It is cheaper and easier to eat fast food. 25% of Americans eat one fast food meal a day; 20% of all American meals are eaten in a car. The American industrialized, processed meal has become the cheapest and fastest race to the saturated-fat, fill-‘em-up finish line.  

Dean and Michelle Wilhelm created a community-gathering place with kalo as the centerpiece—rebuilding lives from the ground up. “I am a teacher, farmer and a cultural practioner,” Dean says. “We grow young people and community.”

Funds for Hoʻokuaʻāina were scarce in the beginning. “We fed the kids tuna fish sandwiches, Dean said.” Eventually the Wilhelms secured a $40,000 grant. “Then we started paying the kids a little.” If we didn’t pay something, the kids might leave the taro patch and go steal snacks at the neighboring 7-Eleven.”

Revenues from kalo are now a vital contribution to the annual operating budget that helps the non-profit become more sustainable and less dependent on grant support.

Hoʻokuaʻāina has continued to grow.

Kids from a juvenile group home show up for mentoring once a week. Kalo, a 12-13 month crop, is planted and harvested in rotation every month. There are over 70 Hawaiian varieties of kalo, but the Wilhelms have found that the ‘Moi Kea’ variety grows best on their farm. “It has a hardier leaf, and it is consistent and grows well,” Dean said.

“Taropy” may be mucky but it is remarkably therapeutic. Kids eventually have the opportunity to move up into co-farm management positions.

Thousands of community members also volunteer their time to help the organization maintain the 20 kalo patches. Volunteers can stop by every other week on production days to buy poi.

Hoʻokuaʻāina has become a community resource. The non-profit offers a variety of programs and also supplies an important traditional food staple back into the diet of many individuals.

Beyond kalo and mentoring, the luʻau is the goal and the reward for Hawaiian food sovereignty.

The luʻau, a glorious Hawaiian feast, involves a communal assembly line. Dean said it’s not uncommon to have 50 people cleaning and cutting taro leaves, filling them with cubes of boiled taro corms, plus grilled or fried fish, chicken, beef or pork, and then adding a little coconut before tying the bundle with leaves from a ti plant (Cordyline fruiticosa). Then the bundle is steamed for 2 ½ hours. “Friends, family and the community gather for the moving and meaningful connection,” Dean explained.

Dean prefers the smaller group setting at Hoʻokuaʻāina. His tenure, with as many as 150 students in public education, “…was like pulling teeth,” he said. “I hated handouts and rote teaching.”

A young boy showed up one day at the taro patch with a group of other kids. He was a “lippy” adolescent who mouthed off and was unwilling to take direction. Dean had previously worked as a teacher at a conventional public school. “Lippy” kids weren’t new to him.

Dean listened to the “lippy” boy; he honored him. Once he had earned his respect, he found an opening and urged the boy: “Now we work hard. You can handle it.”

The kids worked hard. “We worked our asses off, “ Dean said. “And then we all prepared a luʻau.”


All photos courtesy of Hoʻokuaʻāina.