Skip to main content

NASA Harvest Expands Food Security Work in Maui County, HI with Community-Based Partners

Caption: Farmland in Haleakala, Maui in Maui County, HI. Credit: Ron Cogswell from Flickr.

NASA Harvest is expanding its domestic food security work to the Hawaiian islands. Harvest’s AI lead, Hannah Kerner, is partnering with Maui United Way and Responsible Markets to create a GIS-enabled food security dashboard that will combine Earth observation data with socioeconomic and price datasets to fill knowledge gaps in agricultural production across Maui County with a focus on indigenous farmers. Kerner’s proposal was one of 39 selected this past July to receive funding as part of NASA’s Earth Science Division’s new Equity and Environmental Justice program. Maui County, HI has very high levels of food insecurity and children in particular are heavily impacted with an estimated 27% of children being food insecure. Once completed, the dashboard will allow local farmers and policymakers to continuously analyze local crop conditions and inform strategies to combat food insecurity and boost local production.


NASA’s Earth Science Division (ESD) has been collecting satellite imagery of the earth for more than 50 years and is committed to making sure that this data treasure trove is used to inform policy making and better the lives of people across the globe. Around the world, people are suffering from heatwaves and drought, poor air quality, and rising sea levels among other issues. While all are affected to some degree, low income and marginalized communities often bear the brunt of the damage with little relief and attention. Equity and environmental justice is defined by the US EPA as the notion that all people are entitled to fair representation in the “development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”


NASA’s ESD’s equity and environmental justice (EEJ) initiative is charged with better understanding local EEJ issues; engaging community organizations with “localized” knowledge; supplying data and training; and creating transdisciplinary applications that combine physical and social science to solve local EEJ problems. Previous NASA EEJ projects have investigated prolonged power outage disparities in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria; drought severity in the Navajo Nation; urban heat islands in low income communities in NYC; and air quality disparities in Washington D.C. This recent batch of selected EEJ projects will continue this effort, with Kerner’s focusing on combating food insecurity through improved agricultural monitoring of largely small-scale, indigenous-owned cropland.


Strawberry fields at Kula County Farms, Maui. Credit: Melissa Tanji for The Maui News.
Strawberry fields at Kula County Farms, Maui. Credit: Melissa Tanji for The Maui News.


Despite Hawaii having a year round growing climate, 85-90% of locally consumed food is imported from outside the Hawaiian islands. Given their isolated location in the Pacific ocean, this dependence on outside agricultural imports leads to high food prices and increased food insecurity among all, but especially lower income Hawaiian residents. Families of four, on average, pay almost double the national average for groceries and 27% of children in Maui County struggle with food insecurity compared to the national average of 16%. 


As Kerner’s grant proposal describes, many indigenous Hawaiian farmers who produce food for local consumption have not always been prioritized by state-level policies that prioritize food for export, which has limited both native crop production and these farmers' incomes. This is an important equity and environmental justice issue that is closely tied to the larger problem of food insecurity.


Caption: Rates on child food insecurity for Maui County, HI; Hawaii; and the United States. Taken from Feeding America.
Caption: Rates on child food insecurity for Maui County, HI; Hawaii; and the United States. Taken from Feeding America.


Kerner’s EEJ project will create datasets that allow farmers and policymakers to monitor and analyze crop conditions across the County’s three populated islands (Maui, Lanai, and Molokai). This includes mapping current farmland and crop types being grown (a challenging task due to small field sizes, intercropping, and proximity to other vegetation) and quantifying metrics of crop health including soil moisture, vegetation health, temperature, and precipitation anomalies. These EO-derived products will then be combined with other socioeconomic datasets like population and demographics, income, food prices, and requests for local services into a publicly-available Food Security Dashboard led by Maui United Way that will show users the real time, geolocated food and financial needs of the community.


Kerner is leading a team of researchers from her AI research group at Arizona State University and from the University of Maryland for this project. The research group has previously demonstrated successes mapping cropland using AI and satellite Earth observations, including mapping cropland across the entirety of Togo at 10m scale in 10 days during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic to help the Togolese government administer its microloan financing program to boost food production. They are partnering with local, community-based Maui County organizations Maui United Way, a community-based nonprofit, and Responsible Markets, a sustainability-focused investment firm, as well as other local organizations county-wide. 


“Partnering with local organizations allows us to conduct use-inspired research and technology development that is driven by local communities, conditions, and needs” explained Kerner. “Our team is developing cutting-edge methods and datasets, but it’s our partners, those who have lived experience of the physical, social, and cultural environments in Maui County, who make it possible for us to turn those methods and datasets into effective systems serving real people.”


More information about the goals of NASA ESD’s EEJ initiative can be found on NASA Science and further information about previous EEJ projects is available at NASA's EarthData website. The EEJ Research Announcement synopsis for this project can be read here.


News Date
Nov 21, 2022
Keelin Haynes, Hannah Kerner