How this Hawaiian food festival is giving back to the island community

The Hawaii Food and Wine Festival helps guests learn about the oceans, land and sustainability

Ocean View from Kuoloa Ranch — Photo courtesy of Marla Ciimini

Pulling weeds in the hot sun has never been a favorite pastime, but that’s exactly what I did last fall on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. More specifically, we “cleared land,” as our guide explained to us during an immersive volunteer activity on the expansive grounds Kualoa Rancha 4,000-acre private wildlife sanctuary.

This educational (and surprisingly fun!) experience was arranged by Hawaiian Food and Wine Festival. So my husband and I, along with a small group of chefs, food professionals and participants, took part in an early morning hike where we learned about taro cultivation while working together to divert a small stream and plant seedlings in beautiful nature replant environment. Overall it was an unforgettable learning experience with breathtaking views – and it turned out to be an enlightening and motivating way to start the day.

Combining culinary events with immersive volunteer experiences, the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival (HFWF) inspires festival-goers to become more actively involved in sustainability and learn how to care for both the ocean and the land. By continuing to be actively involved in the community, this organization shows that it is about much more than elegant dining events showcasing world-class chefs.

Now in its 12th year, HFWF was founded by CEO Denise Yamaguchi alongside award-winning chefs Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong. This robust organization’s annual event attracts chefs and foodies from Hawaii and around the world—and most importantly, it continually gives back to the islands.

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

As the Hawaii Food and Wine Fest has evolved, the organization has found ways to bring chefs, food and beverage professionals and festival attendees directly into contact with local culinary culture. In 2021, as more aware visitors returned to Hawaii during the pandemic, festival organizers created several new educational, culinary volunteer activities. They focus on the importance of caring for the land and the ocean, and giving back by combining culinary talent with nurturing diverse agricultural wealth and the natural environment.

“At its core, our festival is about sustainability,” explains Denise Yamaguchi. “Hawaiians were once 100% sustainable, so it was important that we tell this story from a cultural and historical perspective. Over the years we have seen how the festival and its participants can have a positive impact by supporting these organisations. This sensitivity is based on the same values ​​we have always held – promoting our diverse agricultural wealth, our exceptional culinary talent and our stunning natural environment.”

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

In 2021, the festival’s Mālama ‘Āina theme fitted perfectly with the Hawai’i Tourism Authority‘s own campaign, “Mālama Hawai’i,” which 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 on the islands include planting new seedlings, removing invasive plant species, fish pond work projects, harvesting crops, learning culture, beach clean-ups and more.

Jay Talwar, Chief Marketing Officer, Hawaii Tourism United States, stated, “Our Mālama Hawaii initiative aims to attract visitors who care about preserving the beauty and culture of the place they visit. It’s a cause that resonates with our islands and our industry, and we’re proud of partners like the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival who have incorporated volunteer tourism opportunities into their program.”

A number of organizations were involved in some of the unique experiences created by last fall’s Hawaii Food and Wine Festival, including Papahana Kuaola and Paepae o Heeia, two non-profit organizations that are long-standing partners of the HFWF. Both are Hawaii-based educational farming organizations with a variety of programs.

Here are some examples of these experiences:

  • Collaboration with Papahana Kuaola, an organization that connects the community with the natural environment. This experience includes preparing, weeding and harvesting taro.
  • Joined Paepae o He’eia, a group dedicated to restoring Oahu’s old He’eia fish pond. Volunteers learn about the pond’s ecosystem, redistribute rocks and corals, remove invasive mangroves and limu (seaweed), and help rebuild the fish pond wall.
  • volunteering with Kuleana Coral, a group dedicated to restoring coral reefs around Oahu. Participants will learn how to tag corals for conservation while discovering the importance of reef restoration.

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

Yamaguchi stated, “It’s been great that this year we’ve been able to partner with so many others who are doing amazing work to promote and promote food, conservation and environmental sustainability on the islands. We, along with our chefs, attendees and stakeholders have gained so much from the volunteer activities at the Lo’i (water taro field) and shorelines. Our cooking partners are the festival bloodline and we appreciate their willingness to learn more about our islands. With first-hand experiences like Mālama ‘Āina, they become advocates for food sustainability and our ambassadors for Hawaii.”

She added: “Mālama ‘Āina was a great 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 have accomplished over the past year by encouraging a greater appreciation for Hawaii’s natural resources by educating residents and visitors about our collective responsibility to care for the land.”

In fall 2022, the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival offers a range of new and interesting experiences for volunteers. Guests can register in advance. Festival events are scheduled for late October and early November on three Hawaiian 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 the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, Makaha Studios

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

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