Leeward Community College student Dez Munar, 20, jumped at the opportunity to become an intern at MA'O Organic Farm in Waianae county of Honolulu, Hawaii, after it offered to pay for his college tuition.
MA'O, which stands for mala (garden) ʻai (food) ʻopio (youth), or youth food garden, was founded as a non-profit organization by Waianae native Kukui Maunakea-Forth and her New Zealand-born husband Gary Maunakea-Forth in 2001. Munar is one of the 30 interns enrolled in the two-year MA'O Youth Leadership Training (YLT) program. Each intern works three days a week in cohorts at the farm and occasionally at the farmers' market.
The program gives each intern a monthly stipend of $500-$600 and covers a full year of tuition for each of the 24 interns enrolled at Leeward Community College, which is worth up to $3,200. The other six students enrolled at the University of Hawaii West Oahu each receive the same amount, which covers about half of the annual tuition there.
"We are trying to raise funds to pay for full tuition at both schools," Gary Maunakea-Forth tells CNBC Make It, "and at the University of Hawaii West Oahu, we are also paying for the Sustainable Community Food Systems classes for the interns."
Before he became an intern, Munar struggled to make ends meet: He "was taking two classes and working a part-time job on the other side of the island, commuting two hours each way between the school and my job," he tells CNBC Make It, and he was still having a hard time paying his $1,190 tuition. "At the end of my first semester, I asked myself how am I going to pay for the next semester. Then the school counselor told me about MA'O organic farm."
Munar started his internship last July and is now a "sui," or leader, of his five-person cohort. As a "sui", Munar starts his day at 5 AM, two hours earlier than the other interns, harvesting at the farm's 24-acre land tucked away in the Lualualei Valley, two miles from Oahu's west shore. His harvest include mangoes, guavas, limes, radishes, kales, beans and beets.
Interns work in cohorts to learn not only the farming and sales skills but also to build character and become leaders. In one of the shifts, Munar works as a "receiver," connecting the harvest team and the supervisor to smooth the workflow, and that gives him insights into running a business: "When people talk about farming they think it's just planting and harvesting. But there are more finer details than that. You have to be on the same page with everyone."
Munar has learned a great deal about collaboration and leadership at the farm. The harvests produced by Munar and his cohorts can be seen at the farmers' market, local stores, and restaurants. They were even featured on the menu of the White House luncheon hosted by former first lady Michelle Obama.
Like the other interns, Munar works in rotations for three days a week, but he likes harvesting the best. "It makes you feel really good and, if you planted them as well, it feels even better because you know you are feeding people," Munar says.
Planting the seed of change is the mission of MA'O organic farm. Waianae is one of the poorest areas in Hawaii: More than 25 percent of its population lives in poverty, and only 9.2 percent of the population holds a college degree. "Our core goal is to get young people to college and prepare them for future leadership roles," the farm's co-founder and managing director Gary Maunakea-Forth tells CNBC Make It.
According to economist Raj Chetty, inter-generational mobility, or the chance of your making it even if you started off poor, is lower in the U.S. than in other nations, and inequality is highly inherited. But a college education can serve as an equalizer. That's why the founders of MA'O Organic Farm believe the internship for tuition programs are crucial for lifting the next generation of Waianae.
As for Munar, his dream is to start his own farm and give back to the community in the way he's learned at MA'O. He will be transferring to University of Hawaii West Oahu to study sustainable community food systems in Spring 2019. As he puts it, "I want to not only feed the people, but also bring changes."
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