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Here's How Kupu Sees a More Sustainable Hawaii

As told to Lauren Finney Harden | October 21, 2020 |

John Leong, chief executive officer of Kupu, updates Modern Luxury Hawai’i on the organization’s ongoing efforts around sustainability.


What is the mission of Kupu?

John Leong: We are focused on sustainability, conservation and youth education, promotes environmental stewardship through hands-on training programs for our community’s youth, so that they may gain the experience and skills needed to serve their communities and preserve our natural resources. In all, we have provided over $132 million in socio-economic and environmental benefits since 2007. This includes over one million native species planted and over 75,000 football fields worth of invasive species removed.

What makes Hawai’i’s sustainability efforts unique?

JL: Hawai‘i is a place that is rich in natural resources. It is also an island state with a major population that faces challenges like sea-level rise, overpopulation, dependence on imported food and energy, and diminishing supplies. The impacts of these challenges face us at a much faster rate than communities on continents. In our island home, sustainable practices are crucial since our survival depends on them.

You also are very involved in the education lifecycle.

JL: As an AmeriCorps grant recipient, Kupu has helped to lead Hawaiʻi to be one of the top ten states with young people serving in AmeriCorps per capita. One of the benefits of this grant is that we provide about $1 million in educational awards for college and post-secondary schooling to those who complete their term of service with us. This is in addition to a regular living allowance and benefits like health care. A new partnership with Arizona State University will allow Kupu members who are in our program to enroll in the online ASU program and complete a year of college while they serve with Kupu. The best part is that the education award will completely cover a full year of college! Instead of going into debt, Kupu members can advance themselves with college credits while getting paid for their service.

We have also participated in the Hawai‘i Youth Sustainability Challenge, a partnership with Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation in which students in public, private, and charter schools from grades 6–12 can apply to receive funding, mentorship, and training from an expert in conservation, sustainability, and/or technology to support their innovative and grassroots environmental initiatives.

What are some of the ways Kupu has helped Hawai’i recently?

JL: Along with the recently launched Kupu ‘Āina Corps program, we’ve created and distributed healthy, cooked meals to help feed keiki and families earlier this year in response to the pandemic. The meals were created through the Kupu Culinary Program, which was launched in 2019 at the new Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Ho‘okupu Center in Kewalo Basin. Over 85,000 meals were distributed for free since COVID started, to those in need. Youth program participants receive culinary training which includes hands-on cooking and food preparation skills, along education on sustainable resources and the cultural significance of food preparation in Hawai‘i. Each meal cooked not only supports local agriculture and provides a high-level, ono delicacy to enjoy, but it also partners with Kupu in providing an opportunity to change the lives of the young people we serve.

How can others get involved?

JL: Kupu is hoping to bring its amazing waterfront facility, the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Ho‘okupu Center, back online for open-air events and activities when permissible. Until then, Kupu is proud to be able to provide much needed food to communities in need. Kupu has been privileged to partner with many companies and individuals who align with our values to deliver these and other quality programs to impact our state. If you know any participants who may be interested in our programs, please encourage them to visit our website at

Photography by: Courtesy of Kupu