Māla‘ai: The Culinary Garden of Waimea Middle School

For the students of Waimea Middle School on Hawai‘i Island, the garden is a place of learning, reflection, nourishment and so much more. Māla‘ai: The Culinary Garden of Waimea Middle School was founded in 2005 to cultivate relationships between students and the land through growing and sharing nourishing food. The organization has successfully transformed an open field into a beautiful one-acre ecosystem classroom. “We grow a diversity of crops, from native and endemic plants for eating and crafting (natural dye, cordage, etc.) to classic vegetables and herbs for cooking,” says Executive Director Zoe Kosmas. “We also have fruit trees around the edge of the garden, and recently got a new flock of six chickens generously donated from one of our volunteers! Our students love eating the fresh eggs and caring for the chickens.” Visiting students are engaged in outdoor physical and academic activities such as planning, measuring garden plots, digging, composting, planting, building, harvesting, and cooking.

Teens holding long-handled gardening tools, gathered around an empty plot.

Māla‘ai, which translates to food gardens in Hawaiian, is currently serving around two hundred 6th through 8th grade students for both in-school and after-school classes centered around science, horticulture, culinary arts, Hawaiian culture and visual arts. “We also serve other K-12 school gardens, garden teachers and educators through our Hawai‘i Island School Garden Network (HISGN),” Zoe says of Māla‘ai’s non profit work across the island. HISGN utilized Mālaʻai as a model garden and host site for programming, and over the course of a decade, the school garden movement has grown to include over sixty school gardens on Hawai‘i Island, and inspired similar networks on neighboring islands. In 2019, Māla’ai assumed leadership and fiscal responsibility for HISGN and revitalized efforts to provide professional development, advocacy, mentorship, and technical assistance to school gardens across the state.

Nourishing Bodies and Minds

“Every student receives a garden snack when they come out to the garden. Sometimes it is fruit from our garden, or donated by a community member, and often it is a snack that has been prepared by a group of students,” says Zoe. Sliced oranges, starfruit and guava often get served in addition to cooked dishes that the students create themselves. “We have an outdoor kitchen set-up where students can practice their culinary skills and prepare bite sized tastings for all of their classmates. Students learn kitchen safety, and how to utilize the plants and crops from the garden to make fresh, healthy, easy snacks. All of our excess produce not used as snacks gets distributed to students and our school community, including teachers, administrators, and families. Anything not distributed at school gets donated to a local church that provides a weekly free meal.”

Students holding plates of fruit.

Māla‘ai students prepare to handout sliced starfruit, guava and oranges for snack time.

“We are also fortunate to have a partnership with many chefs in the area,” says Zoe, “and have had executive chefs from the Mauna Lani Auberge and other nearby resorts come to garden classes to cook with our students. A yummy treat indeed!” Throughout 2022, Māla‘ai students prepared green beans with herb butter; fruit salad with  persimmons; yacon and donated tangerines; popcorn; basil and kale pesto; hand made tortillas; potato leek soup; crepes with apple compote; vegetable summer rolls; and many more delicious recipes. Students also worked together to make guava and tangerine low-sugar jelly as gifts for their teachers during the holiday season. 

Māla‘ai is also available to Waimea Middle School’s teachers as an outdoor classroom space. “Our positive collaborations with the classroom teachers are what make our programs possible,” says Zoe. This year, Māla‘ai has hosted Waimea Middle School Science, Technology, Business, ‘Ike Hawaii (Hawaiian Knowledge, History, and Culture), Exploratory Writing, and Social Studies classes, along with weekly reading time visits from 5th graders at Waimea Elementary School. “The reading and writing teacher appreciates that her students can be outside, and find quiet places for creative writing and reflection.” Writing students often come into the garden to explore and write poetry and journal reflections. Zoe explains that reflection and observation are important values to Māla‘ai’s garden classes as well, and the garden educators always provide opportunities for students to share their findings with their peers. “We often practice qualitative and quantitative observations and always encourage complete sentences!” All Māla‘ai garden visits begin with two minutes of E Kilo ‘Oe - silent, thoughtful observation with all of the senses. Curriculum connections are woven throughout garden lessons with games like garden jeopardy, scientific observations and experimentation, and historical and cultural lessons. “Our Lead Educator Holly Sargeant-Green has done an incredible job developing lessons and activities that support our teachers’ units and enforce concepts learned in other classes," Zoe says. "This is so helpful for students’ overall comprehension.”

A dry erase board with words in English and Hawaiian.

Honoring Hawaiian Culture and Heritage

One of the deeply rooted values at Māla‘ai is the commitment to place-based and culturally-centered garden education. Hawaiian language is utilized in Māla‘ai’s curriculum wherever possible. Garden lessons include ʻōlelo noʻeau, traditional Hawaiian proverbs. Ki (ti leaf) is harvested for lessons in lei-making, traditional Hawaiian methods of planting and harvesting in harmony with the moon cycle is taught and implemented with students, and kalo (taro) is planted, harvested and prepared with students in the traditional ways. 

Facilitated by ‘Ike Hawaii teacher Pua Case and and Cherise Mundon, Māla‘ai has had a long-standing tradition of introducing 6th grade students to Hawaiian cultural practitioner Lanakila Mangauil and the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation story. “This story teaches students about our place in the order of nature, and introduces us to our big brother Hāloa, or kalo, a very important crop in Hawaiian culture. We are grateful to have a captivating educator like Lanakila to share with students the magic of storytelling and oral history, and the collaboration with teachers like Pua Case to help lay a solid foundation for our garden programming,” Zoe says. 

A person stands in front of students, holding up a plant

Lanakila Mangauil holds a kalo shoot while sharing the importance of the plant in context of the Kumulipo (Hawaiian creation story) with students.

In 2022, Māla‘ai students received a visit from Keala Kahuanui, a Hawaiian cultural resource teacher and global navigator who trained in traditional Polynesian seafaring on wa'a kaulua (double hulled voyaging canoe) Makali‘i. Keala shared experiences and lessons on sustainability from voyaging, and helped the students to identify and examine Māla‘ai’s wa‘a plants - plants brought by Polynesian explorers on voyaging canoes for food, medicine, and utility. During that day’s E Kilo ‘Oe, Keala helped the students understand their location by teaching cardinal directions in Hawaiian, explaining that by using your body, the stars and your surroundings you can identify your location and where home is and never be lost.

Looking to the Future 

“Almost all students really enjoy their time in the garden, with any complaints mainly being about the ‘hot sun’ and ‘dirty shoes,’” says Zoe. “Students appreciate the opportunity to be outside and contribute to something that lasts longer than their three years in middle school - to learn in a different environment and to excel at different skills.” Many of the kids involved at Māla‘ai request seedlings to start a garden at home with their families. Plants given to students include māmaki, sugar magnolia peas, swiss chard, basil and more. But the best way to share the kids’ excitement about gardening at Māla‘ai is to let them express it themselves:

  • “It brings out the best in me, it makes me feel calm because of the vibrant plant colors and the flowers.”
  • “The experience in the garden has meant a lot to me because it helps me to stay calm and breathe in some fresh and clean air.”
  • “The garden is important to me because it's part of our community in Waimea that's being taken care of by adults and students that work together.”
  • “Being in the garden has made me more thankful to the land.”
  • “My experience in the garden is very special because I get to make a difference.”

 “We are excited to move forward with plans for a new outdoor learning space which will allow us to host larger groups, and have more weather-protected gathering space in the garden,” Zoe shares about their next development phase. Māla‘ai will also be expanding its garden team in 2023, so Zoe encourages any interested garden professionals to check their website or the Kids Garden Community, where she is a member, for updates!