Honolulu’s New Urban Garden Project Helps People Living in Vulnerable Communities Grow Their Own Food

Get gardening.


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The raised beds at Mānoa Gardens Elderly Housing serve about 90 kūpuna. Photo: Courtesy of Honolulu Department of Community Services


Diana Duff used to run a 3.5-acre commercial coffee farm on the Big Island, so gardening in a 32-square-foot plot shouldn’t be that thrilling.


Oh, but it is. Duff, a 77-year-old resident of Mānoa Gardens Elderly Housing, revels in her raised-bed garden outside her apartment, flourishing with heads of butter lettuce, kale, eggplant, mint, parsley, chives, carrots and turnips.


“I love it,” she says. “I’m a gardener, I love gardening and I love saving the world one garden at a time. That’s my motto.”


That’s also the sentiment behind the Honolulu Department of Community Services project. In December 2020, the department created more than 160 garden beds and planted 20 fruit trees at seven city-owned special-needs housing locations. Funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and inspired by the city’s popular community gardens program, the project helps to provide fresh, sustainable produce for those affected most by the pandemic, from kūpuna to domestic violence survivors to low-income families.


“This pandemic has truly shone a light on the need for food security among our vulnerable communities,” says Pamela Witty-Oakland, director of the Department of Community Services. “Each of these project locations is a place that has offered safety and stability to ‘ohana through housing. Now we get to work together to plant literal seeds for their future that will help to feed nearly 1,100 residents not just for weeks or months, but for years to come.” The city is looking for funding to expand the program long-term. Other counties are also interested in starting similar gardens.


“I’m a gardener, I love gardening and I love saving the world one garden at a time. That’s my motto.”


Raised grow beds were built at ALEA Bridge and Kahauiki Village, both of which serve formerly homeless families; Hale Maluhia, a domestic violence shelter; Vancouver House, which houses formerly homeless and at-risk families; and West Loch Elderly Village, D.E. Thompson Village and Mānoa Gardens, which provide affordable housing for seniors.


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The garden at Kahauiki Village is the largest of those installed by the city, benefiting the more than 500 people who live there. Photo: Courtesy of Honolulu Department of Community Services


Duff, who sold her farm about two years ago and moved to O‘ahu to be closer to better health care, has, in just two months, seen the impact these gardens have made on her neighbors, many of whom had never gardened before. Some are already eating the lettuce they’re growing. Another has been sharing recipes for Swiss chard and kale, two crops he’s growing.


“It’s not only dealing with food security, but it’s getting older people like us outside,” she says. “I’ve met people I’ve never seen before because of this garden. We exchange ideas about gardening, what to grow and how to grow it, and we munch on lettuce while we’re talking.”