News & Events


August 31, 2018

Improving food access and community cohesion for Native Hawaiians

Reprinted with permission from the UW School of Social Work News – First published on February 26, 2018

Food access and nutrition among indigenous peoples can be highly dependent on family and community cohesion. This has led innovative researchers, such as incoming School of Social Work professor Michael Spencer, to design population health interventions that are culturally grounded, participatory, and build community capacity and self-reliance.

Spencer, who will also serve as director of Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Oceanic Affairs at the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute (IWRI), is part of a pioneering project in Hawaii called “Backyard Aquaponics: Promoting Healthy Eating among Native Hawaiian Families.”

Girl feeding fish in an auquaponics system

Deborah Manog, UH JABSOM

Families in the project’s community partner—Ilima Ho-Lastimosa of God’s Country Waimanalo, Hawaii—are learning to build and maintain backyard fish tanks with water-filtering systems that fertilize plants and herbs growing on a canopy above the tank. Through community workshops, participants in the pilot study are also learning to prepare nutritious meals from the produce they grow and to make traditional medicines from herbs.

“Addressing food insecurity and preventing chronic illness among Native Hawaiians require creative and culturally-centered interventions,” Spencer wrote in a recent blog post. The project is funded by a grant from the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities through the John A. Burns School of Medicine. The principal investigator is Jane Chung-Do of the University of Hawaii’s Office of Public Health Studies.

In Hawaii, food and fuel are particularly expensive because of shipping costs. The self-sustaining backyard aquaponics systems are inexpensive to build and can potentially yield enough food for a family’s needs, with surplus that can be sold or shared.

The project has assembled a team of investigators and community participants who research the causes of health disparities among underserved communities in Hawaii—including Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and Filipinos—and document changes in eating habits, health risks, family cohesion, and other factors as a result of using the aquaponics systems.

Spencer’s joining the School of Social Work and IWRI is timely because the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population is rapidly growing—projected to reach more than 2.6 million by 2050, mainly on the U.S. mainland. “Dr. Spencer will fill an important research and representative void at the University of Washington,” says IWRI Co-Director Karina Walters. “Specifically, he is the first tenure-track Native Hawaiian professor at the University of Washington—across any of the three campuses. We are honored and blessed to have Dr. Spencer join our School of Social Work faculty and IWRI family.”

For more information about the social impact of aquaponics, contact Spencer at


NOTE: Spencer and Walters are co-leads for Close the Health Gap, one of 12 Grand Challenges in Social Work—an American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare initiative focused on improving individual and family well-being, strengthening the social fabric, and helping create a more just society.