Hāna Health: Connecting the Dots Between Local Food and Healthy Lifestyles

Mar 25, 2014 11:20 AM ET

From Maui’s main population center of Kahului, drive east along the island’s rugged northeastern coastline for about two hours, crossing over 40 one-lane bridges, and you’ll find the remote town of Hāna. Its pristine beaches and traditional village culture make Hāna one of Hawaii’s most unspoiled gems. But seclusion sometimes brings challenges: like in the mid-1990s, when Hāna’s state-run medical center ran out of money and planned to shut down, leaving the community without access to healthcare.  

Concerned community members and legislators met that challenge by successfully bringing Hāna Health, a private healthcare provider, to the area in 1997. Since then, this non-profit has been the sole provider of family practice medicine, dental care, preventive healthcare, and urgent and emergent care for the region’s 2,200 residents. Hāna Health has also grown to become much more than a healthcare center: it now models and promotes a local, sustainable food system that creates jobs, builds community, and prevents illness.   


“Hāna Health was born out of pure necessity,” notes Hāna Health Executive Director Cheryl Vasconcellos, who joined the organization after 13 years with Planned Parenthood Hawaii. “I thought the small community would allow me to be creative and have a big impact on the local economy and community health,” she says.

That has proved to be true. Over the years, the organization has grown to play an even deeper role in the community than its original mission envisioned. Hāna Health took on the challenge of improving people’s lives by educating them about the link between good health and eating right—and providing accessible options.  


Vasconcellos realized early on, when funding sources reneged on their commitments, that Hāna Health needed a reliable revenue source. “I didn't want to live and die by the grant,” she says. “We needed to look at our own resources; we needed to be entrepreneurial.”

The answer: Hāna Fresh Farms, which Vasconcellos and the Hāna Health board conceived as a way to both serve the mission and earn income. The farm began in 2005 with a one-acre vegetable garden behind Hāna Health’s clinic. Today, the venture encompasses a nine-acre organic farm growing more than 100 varieties of organic fruits and vegetables, and a farmer’s market that sells the produce and healthy prepared meals. In addition, Hāna Health integrates diet and health education with after-school wellness and physical fitness classes as well as incentive programs such as farmer’s market discount days and farmer’s market gift certificates for patients after preventive health screenings.

When the farm began generating a surplus, Vasconcellos researched potential buyers for organic produce and found a huge demand. They now sell produce to Whole Foods Market, Mana Foods (Hawaii’s largest independent natural food store), local restaurants, and smaller establishments.

Part of the Hāna Health vision was to create a Hāna Fresh Nutrition Center, which would enable Hāna Fresh to sell prepared meals and “value added” products, such as jams and salad dressings, at the farmer’s market. “As demand for prepared meals at the farmer’s market increased, it became glaringly apparent that our 100-square-foot kitchen and outdoor tent were inadequate,” Vasconcellos says.

Hāna Health secured funding for the building, site work, and equipment from government grants, but they weren’t enough to complete the project. Enter RSF Social Finance. Ted Levinson, RSF’s director of lending, was on vacation in Hawaii when he came across Hāna Fresh products at Whole Foods. After learning about Hāna Health’s model and mission, Levinson called Vasconcellos to inquire about their funding needs.

“RSF contacted us exactly when we needed them,” she says. “We had begun construction to avoid losing some of our grants, but didn’t have enough to finish. Financing from the state didn’t come through as expected and local banks wouldn’t provide us with a loan. I don’t know where we would be if RSF hadn’t come to the rescue.”


The 1300-square-foot Hāna Fresh Nutrition Center opened its doors in August 2012. The fully equipped commercial kitchen has allowed the organization to double the number of prepared meals it produces to 54,000 annually. Farm revenue grew by 150 percent from 2009 to 2012. Hāna Health now has 40 employees, up from 29 in early 2012.

Hāna Fresh Farms and Hāna Fresh Nutrition Center are cornerstones of Hāna Health’s approach to preventive healthcare and an integral part of the Hāna community. Collectively, they promote healthy lifestyle choices, empower individuals to take responsibility for their own well-being, provide employment and training opportunities for residents, increase food security, and contribute to Hāna’s overall economic vitality.

Next up: Hāna Health is developing a prepared meal program for patients with diabetes and other chronic health conditions that can be improved with dietary changes.

 “Given our remote location, we didn’t have organizations we could model ourselves after,” Vasconcellos says. “We had to be innovative and creative. We’d love to serve as a model for other healthcare providers who want to serve their communities by promoting healthy lifestyles and a healthy economy.”



Company Name: Hana Health HQ: Hana, Maui, Hawaii Impact area: Food & Agriculture RSF relationship: Social Enterprise Lending Program Community served: Hana Employees: 40   Revenue/budget: $3.2M