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First lady Michelle Obama visits MAO Organic Farms


Photo by Martha Cheng

Michelle Obama walks with Manny Miles (left) and Derrik Parker (right).

The only APEC event I attended wasn’t even exactly an APEC event; I tagged along as media for First Lady Michelle Obama’s visit to MAO Organic Farms. At first, her appearance seemed highly choreographed for the media circus (national and local cameras, videocameras, microphones and all were herded around the farm for photo op one, photo op two, etc.) but as soon as she sat down with MAO’s youth interns, she seemed genuine, open, encouraging—a surrogate mother, even if only for an hour. The youth had spent the week preparing her visit, and a frequent question was “can we touch her?” They needn’t have worried; Michelle Obama was almost always the first to initiate physical contact, generous with hugs, a hand on the shoulder, a friendly pat.

Her visit to MAO is part of her Let’s Move initiative, targeted at childhood obesity. The campaign is as much about what’s on children’s plates as it is about the big picture issues of access and affordability, issues that MAO is very keenly aware of: it teaches Waianae youth to farm and provides college scholarships for them, but still, the greatest market penetration of MAO’s healthy, organic greens, is in Honolulu’s fine dining restaurants and Whole Foods rather than in Waianae. A few years ago, MAO had pulled their tent and greens from the Waianae farmers’ market for lack of sales. (Recently, however, it’s giving it another go.)  

I imagine for MAO, bounded on one side by an abandoned military site and developers marching up the Leeward coast, their fight for health and agriculture and community can seem lonesome and discouraging. And think of how discouraging it might feel for a 20-year-old intern (the average age of the MAO youth) when friends and family think they're crazy for being a farmer (a point a few of them brought up). Michelle Obama may have brought the national media attention, but the youth could have cared less: her presence alone gave validation for the work they do. And now, they've got bragging rights next time someone gives them crap about being a farmer.

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