Holualoa ‘ulu tree
It’s no secret that Hawaii imports over 85 percent of its food, and while island residents dream of a sustainable future, the number of Big Island families experiencing food inadequacy is on the rise. Recognizing both the nutritional and sustainable qualities of breadfruit (‘ulu in Hawaiian), the Breadfruit Harvest for Hunger Project (BHHP) harvests unwanted breadfruit around the Big Island and delivers it to residents in need of food. The project is in its first year of operation, and is a branch of Ho’oulu ka ‘Ulu, an organization spearheading a state wide ‘ulu renaissance aiming to revitalize breadfruit as a sustainable and healthy staple food. According to Andrea Dean, co-operator of Ho’oulu Ka ‘Ulu, approximately 50 percent of all the ‘ulu grown on the Big Island falls back to the earth, uneaten. Considering the average ‘ulu tree produces around 400 pounds of breadfruit each year, well, that’s a heck of a lot of food going to waste.
“We’re all about ‘ulu,” says Dean, who notes that during BHHP’s first month of operation the four-person crew harvested an approximate 500 pounds of breadfruit that would have otherwise not been consumed. “We don’t want to see breadfruit wasted. We let landowners know that we’ll come harvest the fruit, give them what they want to keep, and then we distribute the rest,” says Dean. Residents experiencing food inadequacy are connected to the harvests via social service agencies such as the Kealakehe Meet and Eat, Ocean View Food Basket and Hawai‘i Island Youth Corp.
Consuming breadfruit may seem like a new idea in today’s society, but it’s a delicious and nutritious food that like many traditional Polynesian staples, has lost the spotlight to modern processed foods .
An iconic Pacific Island staple food, breadfruit has sustained islanders in Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia since it was first cultivated in New Guinea over 3,000 years ago. So it seems silly that ‘ulu is on the metaphoric back burner for Hawaii residents, and literally on no burner at all for most islanders. Approximately 80 percent of the world’s one billion hungry people live in the tropics in areas suitable for ‘ulu cultivation, says Diane Ragone, director of the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s (NTBG) Breadfruit Institute on Kaua’i. Serving as a parent organization to Ho’oulu ka Ulu, the Breadfruit Institute sees ‘ulu as a major contender in the effort to reduce world hunger.
Ragone has built a life on breadfruit. For nearly three decades she has transformed from an undergraduate student whose virgin voyage into the world of breadfruit was through a research paper, to an ‘ulu expert who has cultivated and cared for the world’s largest collection of breadfruit varieties in Hana, Maui. She has traversed the Pacific many times researching breadfruit and seeking out different varieties. Ragone now has nearly 300 trees consisting of at least 120 varieties of breadfruit at the 10-acre property.
Ragone says the idea of harvesting ‘ulu for public consumption came to fruition for a number of reasons. “It came from a combination of things. Food waste is a huge problem with Hawaii’s venture towards sustainability. So much locally grown food goes to waste,” Ragone says. In addition to being a hearty, gluten free food, breadfruit is rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Because it’s a high yield, low-input crop, Ragone says, “We really want to educate people on growing and eating more breadfruit so it doesn’t go to waste.”
Today, breadfruit is grown in approximately 90 countries. Breadfruit trees are easy to grow and thrive under a wide range of ecological conditions. It can produce an abundance of nutritious food for decades without the labor, fertilizer, and chemicals used to grow field crops. The tree is known to improve soil conditions and protect watersheds while providing food, timber, medicine, fabric, glue and animal feed. All parts of the tree can be utilized—even the male flowers for insect repellent.
Dean says that although BHHP does most harvesting in Kona and Kohala, they’re open to establishing relationships with tree owners around the island. “We stress that ‘ulu should only be picked when it’s mature,” she says. Dean adds that they only harvest with pickers, not tree climbing, due to liability reasons. Although the project just started last year and harvesting is currently limited to the Big Island, Dean is hopeful for the future and sees ‘ulu as a strong candidate for a sustainable crop. According to Ragone, efforts to increase ‘ulu consumption include, “Statewide outreach programs, festivals, workshops, cooking demos, and produce resources on breadfruit.”
Although ‘ulu is believed to have been one of around 30 original plants brought to Hawaii on canoes by settlers, Hawaiian legend tells another story of the origin of ‘ulu in the islands. It was a time of famine, and the god Ku submerged himself into the earth to transform into an ‘ulu tree, knowing that the fruit would provide an abundance of food for his people. Eventually that tree’s off shoots were given to others, and it’s said that today the fruits of Ku’s sacrifice still nourish the people of Hawaii. It may be a legend, but if you ask Ragone, that’s exactly what ‘ulu has always done, and will hopefully continue to do for generations to come.