Learning from the aina (land) at Waipa Foundation: Community poi day and new Kauai food tours

More than 20 years ago, a foundation serving the Native Hawaiian community of Kauai began to take root. Today, it’s a flourishing cultural center, sharing the bounty of its north shore lands in innovative ways for locals and visitors.
waipa foundation kauai

The morning is settling into itself at Waipa, a 1,600-acre ahupuaa (land division) on the north shore of Kauai, when the clouds roll in and it begins to pour. The smell of fresh kalo (taro) is thick in the humid air around several dozen of us, our bodies hunched over knee-high tubs deep with heavy corms. “This going stop soon,” the kupuna (elder) sitting across from me in the open-air garage at Waipa Foundation, says. “Give ’em about 10 minutes.”

Like most here, he’s peeling off the kalo root’s husky skin, the first step in preparing it to be processed into poi, but he is only referring to the sudden rain. In this valley, which extends from the Mamalahoa mountain peak to the western stretch of Hanalei Bay, the regulars of the weekly community poi-making day are well attuned to its rhythms and moods. They’re also well aware that, in the activities taking place here at the foundation, the work is constant and ongoing. We’ll be doing this for a lot longer than 10 more minutes.

Community Poi Day and the meaning of aina 

Every Thursday, people gather here for Community Poi Day, ready to get their hands dirty. From 5 in the morning until lunchtime, the foundation’s staff, area residents and volunteers collectively clean, process, package and distribute poi to north shore families in an effort to keep the vegetable, a staple on Hawaiian dinner tables, affordable for the community.

poi day waipa kauai
The writer’s bucket of unpeeled kalo corms.
Photo: Matthew Dekneef

It’s one of the oldest community outreach programs Waipā Foundation offers, dating back about 30 years. As evidenced by the work ethic of the individuals here, young and old, it’s still going strong. Following a quick orientation, first-time volunteers learn how to properly peel the skin off before it’s passed on to the next stage of cleaning. In an age of commodified voluntourism, Waipā Foundation’s website is deliberate to disclaim: “This is not a photo op, it is work.” If you listen, you’ll pick it up quickly; if you’re too busy talking, as I was, you might be scolded, just as you would by a member of your immediate family. “Boy, just peel the kalo,” says the kupuna across from me in response to my not-so-sly efforts to interview him. It’s experiential learning at its most organic and pure, where all the answers you seek can be found in the aina (land). I stop talking and keep peeling.

There are lessons to be learned in the soil. Early Hawaiians understood this intimately, as evidenced by their ingenious ability to tend to the land in ways that kept their natural resources in balance. This indigenous knowledge continues to inspire and sustain the community of Waipa today, whose hands-on workshops and tours reconnect participants with how to malama aina (care for the land).

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Stacy Sproat-Beck, executive director of Waipa Foundation, wearing a shirt that says it all.
Photo: Kicka Witte/HAWAIʻI Magazine

“That’s really how we make the connection for people to the land because, for us, aina is not just land, it literally means ‘that which feeds us,’” says Stacy Sproat-Beck, executive director of Waipa Foundation. “If we teach everybody that our natural landscapes are more than just beautiful hikes or views, they actually feed you—and they get to experience that by eating what the land provides—then they’re much more likely to take care of it. And it’s way more fun.”

The price on the Hawaiian community

In the increasingly touristed and exclusive travel destination of Kauai’s north shore, Waipa Foundation’s message and role as land steward of this ahupuaa, which includes loi kalo (irrigated kalo patches), naturally flowing kahawai (streams) and an ancient Hawaiian fishpond, is all the more necessary for Hawaiians, culturally and economically.

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Gathering kalo from the bountiful loi.
Photo: Kicka Witte/HAWAIʻI Magazine

“It’s difficult for local families to survive and stay in our community because the north shore is the new home and destination of the rich and famous,” Sproat-Beck says. “All the land is selling for extraordinary price tags. On Hanalei Bay, it’s 20 million for a property, which raises everybody’s property taxes. It’s a financial struggle to hold onto land here and, for the families with ties to this place that are still able to, the cost of living is really high, including the price of food, because of that.”

It’s one of the most consistent issues facing this small residential community numbering less than 10,000, with members with family roots going back generations. Instead of retreating, Waipa Foundation finds ways to engage in and encourage a dialogue with visitors to raise awareness of its mission of maintaining Kauai’s native ecosystem and propagating environmental sustainability and Hawaiian values. Two new food and tasting tours aimed at visitors debuted this year.

New farm-to-table food tours

He Aina Ola, which means “a nourishing feast,” is a collaboration with the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas every second and fourth Monday. A chef from the Westin prepares a three-course menu using seasonal ingredients from Waipa’s gardens and orchards paired with wine, an intimate dinner beginning with an hourlong tour of its grounds. Hawaiian music and hula by Sproat-Beck’s ohana accompany the meal, which is designed for up to 24 people. 

These programs are a natural direction for Waipa’s community, which hope it reminds visitors to “just slow down, be aware and in observance, and to be humble,” Sproat-Beck says, of staying on the north shore. “Approach things wanting to learn, because that’s the value in what we do. The people who come on our tours learn so much about what we do and why we do it and the place here—they all go away definitely changed and caring more about this community, and that’s what we want.” 

Food Tours at Waipa

He Aina Ola is open to all, but must be booked through the Westin Princeville concierge. $135, 4:30 p.m., held every second and fourth Monday of the month. Reservations required; call (808) 827-8700. More at waipafoundation.org.

Categories: Culture, Kauaʻi