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PODCAST: Meet the high schooler tackling food insecurity — one fruit tree at a time

Drawing inspiration from her family’s avocado tree, high schooler Sophie Chen decided to take matters into her own hands to tackle food insecurity in Hawaii.
Published: May. 20, 2022 at 3:52 PM HST|Updated: May. 21, 2022 at 5:04 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Drawing inspiration from her family’s avocado tree, high schooler Sophie Chen decided to take matters into her own hands to tackle food insecurity in Hawaii.

“I knew about the problems surrounding food insecurity on the island. I personally have an avocado tree in my backyard. And every year we’re always trying to give away these fresh avocados. I always thought it was too much for us to handle individually as a family,” Sophie said.

Because of this fruitful dilemma, Sophie decided instead of letting these avocados go to waste, why not donate them to those in need.

Being just a sophomore at Punahou School, Sophie recently founded the nonprofit, The Kokua Tree.

She recently sat down with HNN to describe the work the organization is doing to bolster food sustainability in Hawaii in the fifth episode of “Repairing Earth.”

The initiative partners with families or anyone who’s interested to pick fruits and vegetables from their backyards. The fresh produce is then donated to hunger relief organizations like Aloha Harvest, the Hawaii Foodbank and the Pantry.

Sophie added that a big reason why she started this program was to provide a way to get local produce to those who can’t always afford it.

“Produce is so expensive in the grocery stores and even the convenience stores so if you have a low income or if you’re experiencing food insecurity, you’re not going to turn to produce as your source of nutrition for the day,” she said.

According to Feeding America, 1 in 9 people face hunger in Hawaii — with about 1 in 5 being children.

“With the food insecurity problem here, it kind of felt like a one plus one, so I started this whole Kokua Tree idea,” Sophie said. “Plus, I think a lot of people know people with fruit trees on the island. Like this is just the perfect climate to have your own backyard fruit tree.”

Enlisting the help of other young folks, the group has already had four harvests.

Together they’ve gathered 850 pounds of produce, which is equivalent to saving around $3,000 in food.

The group has filled boxes of fruit from people's backyards, including mountain apples, bananas...
The group has filled boxes of fruit from people's backyards, including mountain apples, bananas and avocados.(The Kokua Tree)

“Our food waste on Hawaii is a really big issue and if we tied it with food insecurity, it’s a really big shame that we’re throwing out around 26% of our annual food supply per year,” Sophie said.

“So, the Kokua Tree is hopefully trying to give a sustainable solution to this problem by keeping it in Hawaii. And that way we’re supporting local, we’re cutting down on fossil fuel combustion from all the shipping that comes in here, and we’re also keeping produce away from invasive insects and animals.”

Currently, Hawaii ships in around 85% to 95% of its food — mostly from the continental US.

From the farming process itself to transporting produce, all of this contributes to our personal carbon footprint.

“Individually, you can definitely cut down on your food waste. If you’re letting your food expire or if you’re buying too much of it then it contributes to the landfills, which of course releases methane emissions into the air. So in a minor way, that’s one way to do it.”

But most importantly, Sophie said the best way to make an impact is to get involved.

“I think a lot of our volunteers, especially on our last property, felt a lot more connected to the land in a way. And that’s a big part of growing up here,” Sophie said.

“It was a really great experience and if you want to educate yourself on this problem, the best way to do it is to get some hands-on experience, to get your hands in the mud, pick some fruit and then donate it.”

For more on the conversation, listen to Episode 5 of Repairing Earth, “Paving a Path Toward Food Sustainability in Hawaii,” on the HNN website or anywhere you get your podcasts.

If you’re interested in helping out with the project, email kokuatree@gmail.com. For the latest on their work, you can also follow them on Instagram @thekokuatree.

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