Regional Information

US-Affiliated Pacific Region History



The various Pacific Island jurisdictions which comprise the U.S. Affiliated Pacific (USAP) Region cover an expansive area. The political history, geography, and demographics of each jurisdiction, and even of individual islands or island groups within jurisdictions, vary greatly and play a significant role in shaping their culinary and agricultural attributes. Just as one cannot consider the region as a homogenous whole without reference to the distinguishing character which makes each people and place unique, describing foods eaten in the various jurisdictions without contextualizing each jurisdiction’s history, geography, and demography would paint an incomplete picture. In order to provide this context, the following section gives brief background information useful to readers with little to no knowledge of the region as well as to those who may be very knowledgeable about some jurisdictions and less knowledgeable about others. This section, ordered from West to East and South to North, contains a brief overview of the history of each jurisdiction, its geography, its people, its economy and how it came to be a part of the USAP.

Republic of Palau

Geography: Made up of six groups of volcanic and raised coral islands, the Republic of Palau (also spelled Belau or Pelew) is located 400 miles east of the Philippines. Its 340 islands have a total land area of 193 square miles (Ridgell, 1995). Palau is the westernmost archipelago in the chain formerly known as the Caroline Islands, which includes Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae (the present day Federated States of Micronesia). All but six of Palau’s islands are enclosed in a large lagoon surrounded by a barrier reef, including the famous “rock islands” which number over 300 (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014i). A total of eight islands are inhabited: four volcanic/limestone islands and four outer islands (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014f).Pacific Food Guide, Hawaii, Palau

History: Somewhere between 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, Palau’s first inhabitants arrived from diverse locations, including Malays from Indonesia, Melanesians from New Guinea, people from the Philippines, and some Polynesians from outlying Polynesian islands in Micronesia (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014i). For about 100 years beginning in the late 1700s Palau had sporadic contact with shipwrecked Europeans and beachcombers as well as occasional visits from whalers and traders. In 1886 Spain formally claimed Palau (and the rest of the “Caroline Islands”) as a colony, although Spanish missionaries did not arrive until 1891 (Ridgell, 1995). At the conclusion of the Spanish-American war in 1899 Germany took possession of the islands, which it held until 1914. At the outbreak of World War I Japan moved to seize Germany’s colonial possessions in Micronesia, administering them under a mandate from the League of Nations (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014i). Fortified by Japan during World War II, Palau was the site of a famous World War II battle at Beliliou (Peleliu) which lasted for two months (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014f). In 1947, the United Nations created a strategic-area trusteeship encompassing more than 2,000 islands situated between 1° and 22° N latitude and 130° and 172° E longitude (an area of about 3 million square miles). Administered by the U.S., the U.N. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) comprised the Marshall Islands, Palau, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, and the Marianas islands (excluding Guam) (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014k). In 1981 a constitution and a presidential form of government were adopted. After more than a decade of unsuccessful attempts, the United States signed a Compact of Free Association (COFA) with Palau in 1993. In 1994 Palau became a sovereign nation (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014i).

Demographics: Palau’s population in 2014 is estimated to be approximately 21,000 (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014f). The main population centers are located on the islands of Babelthuap (Babeldaob) & Koror. Koror city, the largest city in the country, was the capital until 2006 when the seat of government was moved to Melekeok on Babelthuap, where the international airport is located (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014i). Approximately 39% of the population are foreign nationals (Wasem, 2004), largely from the Philipines and Taiwan. Palau has three official languages: Palauan, Sonsorolese-Tobian, and English. Palauan is spoken by approximately two-thirds of the population; Sonsorolese-Tobian is limited to Sonsorol Island in the southwest. To this day Palau is a strong matrilineal society, with women controlling land, money, and titles. Christianity is the major religion on Palau. Approximately half of the population is Roman Catholic and a quarter is protestant. Palau has a near total literacy rate. Palauans tend to emigrate more than residents of other Pacific Island countries, and there are significant communities of Palauans in Guam, Hawaiʻi, and the U.S. west coast (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014i).

Pacific Food Guide, Hawaii, PalauEconomy: Since World War II, most people on Palau have worked for the government. Some people engage in near-shore fishing and subsistence farming of taro, sweet potato, and cassava. Palau has no major export crops (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014f). The Palauan government generates some revenue through licensing foreign commercial tuna fishing vessels. In addition to tuna, Palau exports a small amount of clothing (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014i). Expansion of air travel in the Pacific and Palau’s proximity to Guam, a major destination for East Asian tourists, has caused rapid growth in its tourism industry. Revenues from tourism together with significant U.S. Government aid received under the COFA are two reasons why the population has a per capita income roughly double that of the Philippines and much of Micronesia. Major imports include machinery and equipment, fuels, metals, and foodstuffs (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014f).

Political Affiliation: Palau is an independent country (Wasem, 2004). Since 1981 Palau has had internal self-government, while under the COFA the United States is responsible for external security (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014i). In exchange for defense and foreign aid, the COFA entitles the U.S. government to unfettered access to Palau’s land and waterways for strategic purposes (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014f). Palauan nationals are not U.S. citizens, although they may freely migrate to the U.S. under the terms of the COFA (Wasem, 2004).

Federated States of Micronesia

Geography: The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) are a group of 607 islands (FSM Government, 2014a) in the North Pacific Ocean about three-quarters of the way from Hawaiʻi to Indonesia. The islands have a total land area of 271 square miles (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014d). Unique attributes of each of the FSM’s four states will be discussed separately below.Pacific Food Guide, Hawaii, Micronesia

FSM History European ships visited the islands beginning the 17th century. In 1686 Spanish navigator Francisco Lazcano named the chain (together with Palau) “the Caroline Islands” after Carlos II of Spain (Room, 1988). In the 18th century the islands were visited by whaling ships. Spain formalized their claim to the islands in 1886 and held them as a colonial possession until the end of the Spanish-American War, when they were sold to Germany (Hezel, 2003). At the outbreak of World War I Japan moved to seize Germany’s colonial possessions in Micronesia, seeking to incorporate the islands into its empire. Under a mandate from the League of Nations, Japan administered the Caroline Islands until the end of World War II, when control passed to the United Nations (U.N.). In 1947, the U.N. created a strategic-area trusteeship encompassing more than 2,000 islands situated between 1° and 22° N latitude and 130° and 172° E longitude (an area of about 3 million square miles). Administered by the U.S., the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) comprised the Marshall Islands, Palau, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, and the Marianas Islands (excluding Guam) (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014k). Beginning in 1969 representatives from what would become the FSM entered into self-government negotiations, culminating in their unification under the constitution drafted in 1975 and put into effect in 1979. In 1991 the UN recognized the FSM as an independent nation, although they continue to rely heavily on foreign financial aid which they receive as part of the Compact of Free Association (COFA) signed with the United States in 1986 and renewed in 2004 (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014d). The FSM has no official language. There are 8 distinct local languages and many dialects; English is widely spoken, especially for trade and government functions (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014g).

Pacific Food Guide, Hawaii, MicronesiaState of Yap: The volcanic islands of Gagil-Tamil, Maap, Rumung, and Yap, are located within a coral reef and collectively comprise the Yap islands (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014l). Located 280 miles east of Palau and 500 miles southwest of Guam, The Yap islands, together with one other volcanically raised island and eight major atolls, comprise the state of Yap. The state covers 78,000 square miles of ocean in the Western Pacific and has a total land area of 46 square miles (Yap State Government, 2011). The earliest inhabitants of Yap most likely came from Eastern Indonesia or the Philippines around 1500 B.CE or earlier (Yap Visitors Bureau, 2014). Yap is famous for its stone money, which was quarried in Palau and brought to the state in oceangoing canoes. The stones are large and round with a hole in the middle, made to be placed on poles. There are about 12,000 pieces remaining in Yap, and it is illegal to remove them (Ridgell, 1995). In 1525 Dioga Da Rocha from Portugal was the first European to visit Yap; various other European navigators would pass through the islands of Yap over the next 2 centuries. In 1731 the first Catholic missionaries came to Yap from Guam (Yap Visitors Bureau, 2014). Over the next century or so Yap was nominally controlled by Spain. From 1800-1860 the Yapese traded sea cucumbers with British traders and other Europeans. In 1869 the Germans established their first permanent trading station in Yap (Yap Visitors Bureau, 2014). In the late 19th century an Irish-American named David O’Keefe made a small fortune by quarrying stone money in Palau and bringing it to Yap in a Chinese sailboat (Ridgell, 1995). The people of the Yap islands have a culture and language (Yapese) which are more closely related to the Melanesian language and culture than other Micronesian peoples (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014l). People on the outer islands of Yap state speak Nuclear Micronesian languages similar to outer-island Chuuk and Saipan Carolinian (Ridgell, 1995). Approximately one-tenth of the FSM population (about 11,200) people lives in Yap State (FSM Government, 2014b); ethnically Yapese comprise 5.7% and Yap outer islanders 5.1% of the total FSM population (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014d).

State of Chuuk: Similar to the state of Yap, the state of Chuuk comprises the Chuuk Islands and several outlying atolls. The Chuuk Islands are a group of 16 highly-eroded volcanic islands in a lagoon surrounded by a barrier reef (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014b); Chuuk State also includes 24 inhabited outer-island atolls. The total land area of the state is 49 square miles (Ridgell, 1995). The earliest inhabitants of Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae most likely came from the Marshall Islands in the east, having originated in Vanuatu and Fiji. Archaeological evidence of settlements dating back to the 1st century C.E. has been found on Chuuk (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014g). Historically Chuuk had a fierce reputation characterized by fighting among the islands of the lagoon. For this reason whites tended to avoid these islands, and when missionaries did come to Chuuk State they established missions on the outer islands first (Ridgell, 1995). During Japanese rule rice and sugarcane were planted extensively on the lagoon islands, and in preparation for World War II the Chuuk islands were heavily fortified by the Japanese. Over 60 ships were sunk in the lagoon during the war; today it draws scuba divers from around the world. (Ridgell, 1995). Approximately one half of the FSM population (about 53,500 people) lives in Chuuk State; it is the most populous state in the FSM (FSM Government, 2014b). Weno, the capital, is developed and has paved roads, electricity, and other modern amenities; many people from the outer islands go there for work (Ridgell, 1995). In addition to the Chuuk Islands in the lagoon, there are four main areas of the state. Atolls to the west of the Chuuk Islands are more traditional, identifying with the culture of the outlying Yapese atolls and sailing traditional oceangoing canoes over hundreds of miles. Their dialect is different from the Chuukese spoken by the people living in the Chuuk island lagoon. The atolls to the southeast, called the Mortlock atolls, speak a dialect closer to the lagoon Chuukese, but think of themselves as a different people. Lastly, located to the north of the lagoon are the Hall islands (Ridgell, 1995). Ethnic Chuukese/Mortlockese people comprise 49% of the FSM population (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014d).

State of Pohnpei: Pohnpei is made up of one large volcanic island and six outlying atolls, all of which are inhabited. Located 450 miles east of Chuuk, Pohnpei has a total land area of 133 square miles—mostly on Pohnpei Island (Ridgell, 1995). Thanks to ample rainfall and fertile volcanic soils the island of Pohnpei has lush, tropical foliage (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014j). The island is fertile and well-suited for agriculture, producing much food for local consumption (Ridgell, 1995). The low-lying coral atolls surrounding Pohnpei are wooded, supporting coconut palm trees (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014j). The earliest inhabitants of Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae most likely came from the Marshall Islands in the east, having originated in Vanuatu and Fiji (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014g). Pohnpei is famous for the ruins of an ancient city called Nan Madol, constructed of huge basalt rock crystals piled on one another like logs. Pohnpei was the only state in the FSM to vote against the COFA with the United States (defeating it by a narrow margin of 51% to 49%); however since the other three states voted for the Compact it is still binding on Pohnpei. Palakir, the capital of the FSM, is located on Pohnpei (Ridgell, 1995). There are numerous ethnic groups and languages spoken in the state of Pohnpei. In Pohnpei proper, the Pohnpeian language is spoken (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014d). People from the island of Pingelap speak Pingalapese, which is close to Pohnpeian but different (Ridgell, 1995). Polynesian languages are spoken on the atolls of Kapingamarangi and Nukuoro to the southwest of Pohnpei (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014g). Additionally, there is a sizable community of Mortlockese on Pohnpei as they were allowed to settle there after a typhoon hit the Mortlock atolls during the time of German rule (Ridgell, 1995). Approximately one third of the FSM population (about 34,500 people) lives in Pohnpei (FSM Government, 2014b). Ethnically, Pohnpeian people comprise 30% of the FSM population, and Polynesian people make up 1.6% (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014d).

State of Kosrae: Kosrae is the only state in the FSM which is made up of a single island. Kosrae is a hilly, volcanic island with an area of 42 square miles (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014e). The easternmost island in the FSM, Kosrae is located 350 miles east-southeast of Pohnpei. There are many rivers and waterfalls on Kosrae (Ridgell, 1995). The fertile soils of Kosrae make it ideal for growing oranges, taro, breadfruit, and bananas; it also has valuable timber resources (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014e). Although imports continue to increase, Kosrae produces much food for local consumption (Pacific Small Business Development Center, 2012). The earliest inhabitants of Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae most likely came from the Marshall Islands in the east, having originated in Vanuatu and Fiji (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014g). A frequent stop for whalers, the Kosraean population was reduced by disease from several thousand to a few hundred in the 19th century (Ridgell, 1995). The main Kosraean harbor of Lelu was once a whaling port, and remnants of old stone walls and dikes can be seen there (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014e). These basalt rock crystal ruins are similar to those found at Nan Madol in Pohnpei (Ridgell, 1995). The arrival of Protestant missionaries after the whalers in some ways helped the population to recover, albeit at the cost of losing many of their ancient customs and traditions. The missionaries’ influence persists to this day, as many Kosraeans are very religious (Ridgell, 1995). Approximately one tenth of the FSM population (about 7,700 people) lives in Kosrae (FSM Government, 2014b). Just as it is the only one-island state in the country, Kosrae is the only culturally and linguistically unified state in the FSM (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014g). Ethnically, Kosraean people comprise 6% of the FSM population (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014d).

Economy: Traditionally the people on the coral atolls of FSM lived on taro, breadfruit, banana, and coconut as well as fish and seafood. Local production of these crops continues to be a major source of subsistence for people living on the outlying islands. On larger volcanic islands the above crops are supplemented with cassava and sweet potato. Pigs, dogs, and poultry are also raised for food (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014g). In addition to traditional subsistence crops, the population relies on imports of rice and processed foods from U.S., Japan, South Korea, China, and the Philippines. Other major imports include machinery and transport equipment. The country’s few exports, which are outnumbered 10:1 by imports, are limited to marine products and, to a lesser extent, garments, copra, and betel nut (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014g). Part of the impetus for the formation of the Federated States of Micronesia is that, relative to other states in the region, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae have relatively fewer resources and no potential U.S. military bases (Ridgell, 1995). Today two thirds of the economic revenues of the country come from U.S. grant assistance, with most of the remainder coming from the sale of fishing rights to foreign vessels and the burgeoning tourism industry. The economy is concentrated in government service jobs, with some people engaged in small venture fishing operations or tourism. Presently there is a trend of migration from outlying islands to towns, as people seek schools and employment opportunities (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014g).

Political Affiliation: Under the Compact of Free Association, the United States provides defense and economic aid, while the FSM remains responsible for its own internal self-government (Ridgell, 1995). As an independent nation, the FSM has an ambassador to the United States but no delegate to the U.S. Congress. FSM citizens are not American citizens but they may freely migrate to the United States to live, work, and study (Wasem, 2004).


Geography: Located about 500 miles northeast of Yap (Yap Visitors Bureau, 2014), 1,500 miles south of Japan and 1,300 miles east of the Philipines, Guam is the southernmost of the Mariana Islands (Ridgell, 1995). The island is a combination of limestone in the north resembling a raised coral island and volcanic hills to the south (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014c) with mountains as high as 1,300 feet (Ridgell, 1995). The island has a land area of 210 square miles (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014b). There are numerous rivers and waterfalls in the southern half of the island and none in the north. The island is intermittently visited by destructive typhoons, with more destructive super typhoons occurring several times each century (Ridgell, 1995).Pacific Food Guide, Hawaii, GuamHistory: The indigenous people of the Mariana Islands, called Chamorros, arrived on Guam 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence shows that by 800 C.E. they had developed a complex society (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014c) which carved large stone pillars arranged in parallel rows as structural supports for buildings. Called latte stones, these pillars are prevalent in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Found only in the Marianas, latte can reach up to 16 feet in height (Ridgell, 1995). The first contact between Europeans and any Pacific Island civilization came in 1521, when Ferdinand Magellan visited Guam (Ridgell, 1995). In 1565 Spain declared the Marianas Islands a colony, and Guam became a stop for Spanish galleons traveling between Mexico and the Philippines (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014h). In 1668 a Jesuit priest named San Vitores established a Catholic mission on Guam and began converting the Chamorros to Catholicism. Conflicts erupted between native Chamorros and the Spanish settlers, leading to the Spanish Chamorro Wars of 1680 to 1696 (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014h). The Spanish fought with the Chamorros, killing many and forcing other Chamorros from the Northern Mariana Islands to relocate to Guam (Ridgell, 1995). During this period the indigenous Chamorro population was also severely depleted as a result of diseases introduced by the Spanish (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014h). After the Spanish-American war in 1898 Spain ceded Guam to the United States. Until 1950 Guam’s governor was a naval officer appointed by the president of the United States. During World War II the Japanese Imperial Army occupied Guam from just after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 until it was recaptured by U.S. forces in August of 1944 (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014c). In 1950 Guam became a U.S. territory and its people became U.S. citizens (Ridgell, 1995). Beginning in the 1970s Guam adopted a more representative form of self-government, electing its first governor in 1970, sending a non-voting representative delegate to congress in 1972, and writing a territorial constitution in 1978. In 1982 a referendum vote resulted in the majority of Guamanians electing to adopt commonwealth status, but the provisions of this agreement were rejected by the U.S. government (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014c).

Pacific Food Guide, Hawaii, GuamDemographics: Estimates of the Guamanian population prior to Spanish arrival are as high as 40,000. As a result of war with the Spanish and introduced diseases, the population dropped to around 5,000. Intermarriage between this Chamorro remnant, Filipinos brought to the island by the Spanish, and Spanish and Mexican soldiers gave rise to the Chamorro population seen today (Ridgell, 1995). Chamorros and other Micronesians make up approximately half the population, and Asians (especially Filipinos and Koreans) make up about a third. Foreign-born people account for 31% of Guam’s population. Of these, 13% are naturalized U.S. citizens and 18% are foreign nationals (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). English and Chamorro are the official languages. English is the primary language for business and education, yet Chamorro is still spoken in many homes (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014c).

Economy: The largest source of income for Guam comes from U.S. national defense spending (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014b). Whereas traditionally many more islanders engaged in subsistence fishing and agriculture, today many are employed at the various U.S. military facilities on the island (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014c). In recent years tourism has grown, presently accounting for the second-largest source of revenue. Important industries include poultry farming, garment-finishing plants, and oil refining (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014c). Although there is some local production of fruits, copra, vegetables, eggs, pork, and beef (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014b), Guam relies on imports for the majority of its food (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014c). Other major imports, coming primarily from the U.S. and Japan, include motor vehicles and parts, shoes, and other leather products (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014c).

Political Affiliation: Guam is a U.S. Territory administered by the U.S. Department of Interior. Because it is an unincorporated territory, not all provisions of the U.S. Constitution apply there (Wasem, 2004). For example, residents of Guam cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014b). It is, however, an organized territory, meaning that the U.S. Government has used an “organic act” to confer powers of government to the territory, setting up a territorial government and its relationship to the U.S (Wasem, 2004). With the passage of the Organic Act in 1950, Guamanians became U.S. citizens (Statham Jr, 1998). Guam has one non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives (Wasem, 2004).

Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands

Geography: The Northern Mariana Islands are a group of 14 volcanic and raised coral islands (Ridgell, 1995) located about three-quarters of the way from Hawaiʻi to the Philippines. The islands have a total land area of 179 square miles (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014e). Located about 1,000 miles south of Japan, the island chain spans 375 miles. Guam, the southernmost island in the Marianas chain, is a separate political entity (Ridgell, 1995). map_CNMI

History: The original inhabitants of the Mariana Islands were Micronesians who arrived there between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago (Ridgell, 1995). Some archaeological evidence such as pottery similar to the style of Philippine ceramics suggests that these people may have originated in Southeast Asia (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014h). These native people, called Chamorros, carved large stone pillars arranged in parallel rows as structural supports for buildings. Called latte stones, these pillars are prevalent in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Found only in the Marianas, latte can reach up to 16 feet in height. After Ferdinand Magellan’s brief stop at Guam in 1521, Spain declared the Marianas a colony in 1565, although there was no permanent settlement there until the arrival of Jesuit priests in 1668. The Jesuit priest Diego Luis de Sanvitores named the islands after the regent of Spain, Mariana of Austria, who had financed his mission. Conflicts erupted between native Chamorros and the Spanish settlers, leading to the Spanish Chamorro wars of 1680 to 1696 (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014h). During these wars the people of Saipan and Rota in the Northern Marianas were forcibly relocated to Guam by the Spanish (Ridgell, 1995). During this period the indigenous Chamorro population was also severely depleted as a result of diseases introduced by the Spanish. At the culmination of the wars, the Chamorro people were forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the king of Spain and adopt western dress and customs. At the end of the Spanish-American war in 1899, Germany purchased the Northern Mariana Islands while America retained possession of occupied Guam (Hezel, 2003). Interested in developing Copra for export, the Germans held the islands until the outbreak of World War I, when they were seized by Japan (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014h). The Japanese introduced extensive sugar cultivation to the islands. Many Japanese citizens were living in the islands at the outbreak of World War II, and Japan immediately captured Guam from the Americans. In June and July of 1944 the U.S. took Saipan from the Japanese in one of the bloodiest battles of the war (Ridgell, 1995). In 1947, the United Nations created a strategic-area trusteeship encompassing more than 2,000 islands situated between 1° and 22° N latitude and 130° and 172° E longitude (an area of about 3 million square miles). Administered by the U.S., the U.N. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) comprised the Marshall Islands, Palau, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, and the Mariana Islands (excluding Guam) (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014k). In 1975 the people of the Northern Mariana Islands voted to become a commonwealth in association with the United States (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014h).

Demographics: Most residents of CNMI live in the capital, Saipan, which together with the islands of Tinian and Rota comprise the primary population centers. Other inhabited islands include Anatahan, Alamagan, and Agrihan (Ridgell, 1995). Chamorro and English are the official languages, spoken by 24% and 17% of the population, respectively. Philippine languages are spoken by 33% of the population, with the remainder speaking other Pacific Island languages (10%), Chinese (7%), and other Asian languages (7%) (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014e). Over time the original Chamorro inhabitants of the islands mixed with Spanish, Mexican, and Filipino peoples; today their descendants make up about one-fifth of the population of the islands. About one quarter of the population is Chinese and another quarter are Filipino; the remainder are made up of Micronesian people who immigrated from Palau, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014h).

Pacific Food Guide, Hawaii, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana IslandsEconomy: Approximately one quarter of the country’s GDP and one quarter of its workforce are employed in the tourism industry (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014e). Most tourists come from Japan, Korea, or America and go to Saipan or Rota (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014h). The garment industry is also a major source of exports. Until recently the country was exempt from many of the wage and labor regulations of the U.S. while still not being subject to duties and quotas imposed on foreign producers. This led to allegations of poor working conditions and labor practices, leading the U.S. government to enact minimum-wage and other legislation in 2007. As a result of this legislation (and infrastructure destruction from 2010 typhoons), production of garments and textiles has declined in recent years. Another major source of revenue is financial aid from the U.S. government. Small-scale agriculture operations produce coconuts, breadfruit, tomatoes, and melons; there are also several cattle ranches. The country relies on imports for food, construction equipment and materials, and petroleum products (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014e).

Political Affiliation: The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands enjoys a political union with the U.S. administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Insular Affairs. The commonwealth is self-governing and has a locally-elected governor, lieutenant governor, and legislature (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014e). When the full commonwealth status of the Northern Marianas Islands went into effect upon the dissolution of the TTPI in 1986, eligible residents of the islands became U.S. citizens (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014h). The Commonwealth has a non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives (Wasem, 2004).

Republic of the Marshall Islands

Geography: Consisting of 29 low-lying coral atolls and five coral islands ordered in two chains (the Ralik chain to the west and the Ratak chain to the east), the Marshall Islands span several hundred miles from north to south. The easternmost country in Micronesia, the Marshalls comprise over 1,200 islands and islets with a total land area of 66 square miles (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014f). Only 24 of the country’s islands are inhabited (Ridgell, 1995). No part of any island in the Marshall group rises higher than 10 meters above sea level (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014c).Pacific Food Guide, Hawaii, Republic of the Marshall Islands

History: The Marshall Islands were first settled around 20-50 C.E. by Micronesians. The early inhabitants were skilled navigators who voyaged between the atolls in oceangoing canoes. Initial contact with Europeans came in 1529, when the islands were sighted by Spanish navigator Álvaro Saavedra (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014f). Due to their reputation for attacking ships, the Marshalls were largely avoided by outsiders early in their history (Ridgell, 1995). Partially explored by British naval captains John Marshall and Thomas Gilbert in 1788, the islands were frequented by American Whalers in the 1820s. In the 1850s the first Christian missionaries arrived from America. Under an agreement with Great Britain, Germany established a protectorate over the Marshalls in 1886. At the outbreak of World War I Japan moved to seize Germany’s colonial possessions in Micronesia, administering them under a mandate from the League of Nations. After occupation by U.S. forces during World War II, the Marshalls became part of the U.S. administered United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) in 1947 (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014f). A strategic-area trusteeship encompassing more than 2,000 islands situated between 1° and 22° N latitude and 130° and 172° E longitude (an area of about 3 million square miles), the (TTPI) comprised the Marshall Islands, Palau, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, and the Marianas islands (excluding Guam) (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014k). From 1946 and 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear explosive tests in the Marshall Islands, primarily on Bikini and Enewetak atolls. In 1954, one such test caused radioactive fallout to blow over the inhabited atolls of Rongelap and Utrik, which were subsequently evacuated. In the late 1960s cleanup efforts began, followed by resettlement operations. Presently only Enewetak and Utrik are inhabited. Residents of the Bikini atoll left soon after the attempted resettlement and residents of Rongelap chose to leave the island for good in 1985 (Embassy of the United States in the Marshall Islands, 2012). In 1978, residents of the Marshall Islands voted to separate from the TTPI, forming the Republic of The Marshall Islands (RMI) and adopting a constitutional form of internal self-government in 1979. A Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the United States was signed in 1982, approved in 1983, and fully implemented in 1986 (Ridgell, 1995). Under the COFA the United States provides defense and external security in exchange for financial aid and use of Kwajalein Atoll for military purposes. Today the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll (U.S.A.K.A.) Reagan Missile Test Site is a key part of the U.S. strategic missile defense system (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014c).

Demographics: RMI has two official languages. Marshallese is spoken by over 98% of the population, and English is spoken by some as a second language (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014c). Almost three quarters of the Marshallese population lives on the atolls of Majuro and Kwajalein. Many people are employed at the U.S. missile test site on Kwajalein. As a result of missionary influence starting in the 1850s, the Marshallese population today is largely Christian (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014f).

Pacific Food Guide, Hawaii, Republic of the Marshall IslandsEconomy: People living on atolls far from the two major population centers engage in subsistence fishing and farming. Major food crops include coconut, pandanus, breadfruit, and taro; people on the outer islands also raise pigs and poultry for food (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014f). Copra is the major export of the Marshall Islands; however the main source of economic revenue is the employment and rent generated by the U.S. base at Kwajalein. Some revenue also comes from commercial fishing in the large expanse of water comprising the Marshalls’ economic zone (Ridgell, 1995). The country relies on imports of machinery and transport equipment, fuel, and manufactured goods from the U.S., Japan, and Australia (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014f).

Political Affiliation: The Republic of the Marshall Islands is an independent country (Wasem, 2004). Since the dissolution of the TTPI in 1986, RMI has had internal self-governance, while under the COFA the U.S. is responsible for defense and external security. The U.S. also provides substantial financial assistance to the republic (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014f). The Marshallese people are citizens of the Republic of the Marshall Islands; while not U.S. citizens, they may migrate freely to the U.S. under the terms of the COFA (Wasem, 2004).

American Samoa

Geography: American Samoa consists of 7 volcanic islands and coral atolls in the western half of the Samoan Archipelago. Located in Polynesia in the south-central Pacific, American Samoa is approximately 1,600 miles northeast of New Zealand and 2,200 miles southwest of Hawaiʻi (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014a). American Samoa has a total land area of 76 square miles, 52 of which comprise the main island of Tutuila. Other inhabited islands include nearby Aunu‘u, Swain Island atoll to the north, and the three islands of the Manu’a group: Tau, Olosega, and Ofu, which are located about 62 miles east of Tutuila. The lone uninhabited island of American Samoa is Rose atoll, located far to the east of Tutuila (Ridgell, 1995).Pacific Food Guide, Hawaii, American Samoa

History: The first settlers of the Samoan islands were Polynesian voyagers who arrived around 1,000 B.CE, most likely from Tonga. It is from Samoa that these same Polynesian voyagers are thought to have departed to settle much of eastern Polynesia, starting around 500 C.E. First contact with Europeans came in 1722, when the islands were sighted by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen. Sporadic contact with traders, beachcombers, and other European navigators followed. In the 1830s the first missionaries arrived at Tutuila, sent by the London Missionary society (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014a). Traditionally, Tutuila was a haven for chiefs exiled from the main Samoan islands of Savai’i and ‘Upolu to the west. The Manu’a islands were politically independent and had their own high chief (Ridgell, 1995). This changed in the late 1800s. Pago Pago has one of the best natural deep-water harbors in the South Pacific (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014a), leading the U.S., Germany, and Great Britain to vie for control of the Samoan Islands throughout the late 1800s. Eventually Great Britain withdrew its claim (Ridgell, 1995), and the U.S. signed a treaty for the establishment of a naval station at Pago Pago harbor in 1878. Without any input from the local chiefs, the U.S. and Germany unilaterally agreed in 1899 to divide the islands into eastern (now American) Samoa and Western Samoa (now Samoa). By 1904 the local chiefs had formally ceded all of the eastern islands to the United States, although congress did not formally accept the deeds of cession until 1929. From 1900-1951 the U.S. Navy exercised control over American Samoa; in 1951 control was transferred to the Department of the Interior, and a territorial governor with full powers to administer the territory was appointed. Demands from Samoans for a higher degree of self-rule led to the first gubernatorial election in 1977; since then all governors have been elected by the people. In 1981 American Samoa sent its first non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress. In 2009 an undersea earthquake near Samoa generated a tsunami which caused extensive damage and flooding, especially on Tutuila (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014a), killing around 200 people (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014a).

Demographics: Most Samoans are bilingual in the Samoan language and English (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014a). Both are official languages. The population as of July 2014 is estimated to be approximately 54,500. Almost the entire population is Christian, a mixture of Christian Congregationalist (50%), Roman Catholic (20%), and Protestant and other denominations (30%) (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014a). The majority of the population (90%) is ethnic Samoan, with the remainder made up of Tongan, Asian, and European people (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014a). Over 40% of the population is foreign-born. Most come from Samoa, but there are also people from Tonga and other Pacific islands, the United States, and various Asian Countries (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014a). Samoan society is based around extended families (aiga) which are headed by communally-selected chiefs (matai). District councils (fono) made up of a group of matai control and run local affairs. The majority of Samoans live in coastal villages, with the exception of Pago Pago, the lone urban area (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014a).

Pacific Food Guide, Hawaii, American SamoaEconomy: The Samoan economy is strongly linked with the U.S. (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014a). Government jobs are the main source of employment (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014a). Canned tuna is American Samoa’s main export, and there are a number of fishing, processing, and cannery operations in American Samoa. Just two canneries account for 80% of the territory’s non-government employment. Tourism is developing but limited at present. The rest of the economy is organized in traditional Polynesian fashion, with more than 90% of the land communally owned (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014a), and family gardens producing coconuts, breadfruit, and yams. Taro, bananas, tropical fruits, and some vegetables are produced on a semi-commercial basis (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014a).

Political Affiliation: American Samoa is a U.S. Territory administered by the U.S. Department of Interior. Because it is an unincorporated territory, not all provisions of the U.S. Constitution apply there (Wasem, 2004). For example, residents of American Samoa cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections, although they may vote in democratic or republican primary elections (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014a). American Samoa has one non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives (Wasem, 2004). American Samoa is an unorganized territory, meaning that authority for its governance is under the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, who authorized the territory to draft its own constitution in 1967 (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014a). The people of American Samoa are U.S. nationals but not U.S. citizens.


Geography: Hawaiʻi is a chain of 8 volcanic islands and 124 islets located in the central Pacific ocean, 2,397 miles west of San Francisco and 5,293 miles east of Manila (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014d). It is the only major Polynesian island group located entirely in the northeast Pacific (Ridgell, 1995). Named after the largest of the eight major islands, the archipelago also includes the islands of Ni‘ihau, Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Moloka‘i, Lānaʻi, Kaho‘olawe, and Maui; all are inhabited, with the exception of Kaho‘olawe. The total land area of the Hawaiian Islands is 6,468 square miles (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014d).

History: Around 400 C.EPacific Food Guide, Hawaii. or earlier, Polynesian voyagers from the Cook Islands, Tahiti-nui, and/or the Marquesas Islands settled in Hawai‘i, becoming its first inhabitants (Wilmshurst, Hunt, Lipo, & Anderson, 2011). By 900 C.E. trade and contact with Tahitian and other Polynesian peoples had been established. The early Hawaiian society was hierarchical, ruled by chiefs and priests who warred with each other for control of territory (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014d). In 1778 British Captain James Cook was the first European to visit the Hawaiian islands. Kamehameha Pai‘ea was the first Monarch of the Hawaiian islands, successfully unifying them into a kingdom in 1795. In the early 1800s American whaling fleets stopped at the islands (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014d). In 1820 the first missionaries arrived from Boston. The missionaries brought literacy to the Hawaiian islands, converted many people to Christianity, and acted to suppress native cultural practices such as hula (Menton & Tamura, 1999). Beginning with the missionaries, a minority of whites exerted increasing influence over the political and economic affairs of the nation, playing a role in the creation of a constitution in 1840 and the 1848 Great Mahele, or land division, which created a western-style private property system. This minority was also instrumental in the signing of a Reciprocity (or free-trade) Treaty with the United States in 1875, which benefited wealthy plantation owners (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014d). In 1893 the last of seven Hawaiian monarchs, Queen Lili‘oukalani, was overthrown by a small group of white Hawaiian Kingdom subjects with the help of marines landed from the USS Boston at the behest of U.S. Ambassador John L. Stevens (Menton & Tamura, 1999). After several failed attempts, Hawaiʻi was ostensibly annexed as a territory of the United States by a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress in 1898; no treaty of annexation was ever signed (Chock, 1995). The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 created a government-sponsored homesteading program which offered land to native Hawaiians, defined as individuals with at least 50% native Hawaiian blood (Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, 2014). Hawaiʻi became the 50th U.S. state on August 21, 1959. Some scholars have argued that the 1959 statehood ballot used in the plebiscite was flawed, as it offered only two options (statehood or territorial status) and not “independence” or other “separate systems of self-government” as mandated by the United Nations (Trask, 2008). Beginning in the 1970s there was a resurgence of native Hawaiian language and customs, which continues to the present day (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014d).

Demographics: As of 2012, the state of Hawaiʻi had an estimated population of 1,360,300 (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014d). While the U.S. has no official national language, in the state of Hawaiʻi English is widely spoken and Hawaiian is an official language (Central Intelligence Agency, 2014g). One in four households in Hawaiʻi speak a language other than English at home. The most common languages spoken are Asian or Pacific Island languages, notably Japanese (4%), Tagalog (4%), Ilocano (4%), Chinese (2%), Korean (1%), Vietnamese (1%), Samoan (1%), and Hawaiian (1%). Additionally, 2% of the population speaks Spanish and 1% speaks some other Indo-European language (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Additionally, Hawaiian Pidgin (or Hawai‘i Creole English, HCE) is spoken by an estimated 600,000 people in the state (Sakoda & Siegel, 2003). Oahu is the most populous island with 72% of the state’s population, followed by the Big Island of Hawai’i (12%), Maui (10%), and Kaua‘i (5%). The combined population of Moloka‘i , Lana‘i, and Ni‘ihau represents less than 1% of all residents of the state (Hawai’i Visitors and Convention Bureau, 2011).

Pacific Food Guide, HawaiiEconomy: The largest industry in Hawaiʻi is tourism, which has grown steadily since World War II. Half of the hotels in the state are located in the vicinity of Waikiki, and cruise ships make regular stops at ports in the islands. Manufacturing on the islands ranges from small scale to heavy manufacturing including oil refineries, a concrete-pipe plant, and an aluminum-extrusion plant. Roughly one quarter of all workers in the state belong to a labor union (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014d). Although the majority of food consumed in the state is imported, there is a significant local agriculture sector producing Asian and local specialty foods, tropical fruits, coffee, macadamia nuts, and miscellaneous other crops for local consumption. Major exports include sugar, garments, flowers, and canned fish. Food, clothing, fuel, vehicles, and building materials are major imports. Hawaiʻi relies on imported fuel oil for most of its energy needs, although wind farms on Maui and O‘ahu and a geothermal plant on Hawaiʻi are examples of how the state is trying to increase the proportion of energy generated from renewable sources. The state government’s revenue comes primarily from a general excise tax, individual income taxes, and federal grants (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014d).

Political Affiliation: As a U.S. state, Hawaiʻi has two Senators and two Representatives in the U.S. Congress. Citizens of Hawaiʻi are U.S. citizens. Unlike other native peoples in the United States, Native Hawaiians have never been granted the right of self-governance by the U.S. federal government (Wasem, 2004).

Overview of Food and Culture

The Pacific Islands are divided into three parts—Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia, and encompass 20 to 30,000 different islands. These islands exhibit a great amount of cultural diversity. However, it has been observed that despite the vast size of the Pacific, many islanders display similar cultural aspects, especially when it comes to food. The following chapter addresses certain cultural themes related to food that Pacific Island societies have in common, with a specific focus on those societies affiliated with the United States.

Food and Land

Food and land were profoundly related concepts in Pacific Island societies. Land was believed to be the ultimate source of life, in both as a spiritual and physical place. Many societies believed that the land was embodied with the spirits of ancestors. The land also brought forth the food that played such a diverse and important part in the Pacific Islander’s lives (Pollock, 1992). The meaning of the Hawaiian word for land (‘aina) conceptualizes this belief. ‘Aina means “that which feeds,” and links the occupation of the planter and the most vital life ensuring function of eating. ‘Aina also means “earth mother,” because the Hawaiians believed that the earth is charged with the same life force as mother. In linking the two, the Hawaiians were saying that “the earth too is a living entity, feeding us as a mother feeds her newborn child, caring for all our material and biological needs—giving us life, as a mother does”(Kanahele, 1986). Similarly, the ancient Chamorro’s believed that humans were not unique or set apart from the rest of the living and non-living world. They believed that humanity and nature were intertwined, and displayed a great concern for nature, attempting to live harmoniously and integrate their lives (Cunningham, 1992).

Pacific Food Guide, Hawaii, Food and Land

Biological vs Social

Food can be categorized into two dimensions—biological and social. From a biological standpoint, food is essential to our basic survival, and we could simply not live without it. It fuel’s our bodies and gives us the energy we need to live. However, in its social dimension, food has historically played an important role in Pacific Island societies (Pollock, 1992). Food was central to creating and maintaining social relationships. Sharing food with others displayed one’s ability to behave like kin, and taking care of each other through the exchange of food was a highly valued part of building and maintaining familial relationships (McMullin, 2010). This chapter will focus on the social importance of food, rather than its biological importance, across the Pacific Islands associated with the United States.



Pacific Food Guide, Hawaii, SharingFood in Pacific Island societies was often shared among family, friends and members of the community. In the Federated States of Micronesia and in the Marshall Islands, food produced by the family was commonly shared among others, even if the amount of food produced was scarce. It was customary for the amount of food given away to be greater than that kept for oneself. The act of sharing was reciprocal, in that families took turns sharing their food with one another. After fishing expeditions, the catch was shared with relatives and friends. If for some reason, such as illness, a man could not go fishing, fish and other foods would be shared with him and his family (Rody, 1982).



Food was commonly used in Pacific Island societies to demonstrate signs of respect. In Samoan society, hospitality was shoy status within the village. Chiefs were served first, followed by women, children and the people who prepared the food. Parts of some high status food, such as pig (pua’a), were reserved for different ranks of chiefs. Food servings that were too large for individual consumption were given to the families of chiefs, and the pig (pua’a) or fish (i’a) was passed to individuals based on social status for them to take home after an eating occasion (Bindon, 1988).
In the Federated States of Micronesia, food was also used to convey their respect for others. They often used gifts of food to acknowledge respect for their chiefs and elders in the community. Food was also used to welcome visitors (Rody, 1982).


Social Prestige

In ancient times, the Pohnpeians turned yam growing into a method of gaining social prestige. The man who grew the largest yams and contributed them to feasts attained a high status traditional title. The size of the yams was measured by the number of men required to carry it slung from wooden poles. Average sizes were four to eight man yams, weighing from one to two hundred pounds apiece. This custom still flourishes in Pohnpei today (Rody, 1982).



Feasts were an extremely evident part of life across the Pacific, and are still prominent today. Feasts were an important time for households and communities to come together and participate in an event. The food served at feasts was integral to religious ceremonies, life cycle events, changes in status, etc. The entire feast event included both the food preparation and the actual eating of the food itself. Similar to household food events, feasts included a primary starch food and an accompanying dish, but with a much greater variety. The accompaniments could include pork, cooked or raw fish, turtle, seafood, and several mixed dishes such as the Samoan palusami (taro leaves & coconut milk) The distribution of food often took place in accordance with culture specific rules of hierarchy and etiquette (Pollock, 1992).

The largest traditional feast in Pohnpei was called kamatipw, and involved common feast activities: cooking in an earth oven, joint preparation of food, presentation of food to the main guest and communal eating. A kamatipw was held to honor chiefs or other high-ranking persons, with other social events, such as weddings, being celebrated simultaneously. Other feasts celebrated the peak of yam harvest, the beginning and end of house-building and the coronation of chiefs. Yams (kap) and breadfruit (mar) were commonly served, along with kava (sakau) and pig (pwihk) (Pollock, 1992).

Samoans had two main types of feasts: sua and ta’alolo. Sua was a formal presentation that marked the respect for an honored guest. Ta’alolo was a more formal presentation made to a more respected and larger group (Pollock, 1992).

The Hawaiians also had feasts for many occasions. There was a feast for blessing products of craftsmanship. When a skillful piece of work was completed and required the blessing of the spirit guardians (‘aumakua), there was a feast of blessing, dedicating the product to its proper use. This was done for the first items made—a first mat, quilt, fish net, bowl etc. Another event, called the Feast of Countless Hands (‘aha ‘aina laulima), celebrated any communal work that involved the participation of many people. This was specifically related to the tasks of food production: clearing land, making and repairing irrigation ditches, taro patches, fish ponds, or planting large patches of dry taro or sweet potato for ali‘i (chiefs) and maka‘ainana (the people). Feasts of welcome were held to celebrate the return home of relatives or family. Ho‘okipa means hospitality, and comes from the word kipa, meaning to turn in or lodge. The welcoming feast, ‘aha ‘aina, reestablished the returned relative to the ‘ohana and ‘aina, or homeland (Handy & Pukui, 1998).

The main feature of many Pacific Island feasts was that they were occasions for food sharing that brought together different sections of the community to participate in a mutually significant event. Sharing was observed through the contributions made by each household, cooking and the final distribution of the food. Feasts were more than just a food event, but the food in its entirety was extremely important. It was and still is a cultural highlight that marks food as a central symbol (Pollock, 1992).

Food Preferences

Pacific Islanders consumed many of the same traditional foods. This included various species of taro, yam, breadfruit, cassava, sweet potato, banana, plantain, pandanus and arrowroot. While they may have eaten the same foods at one time or another, foods were ranked differently in certain societies. Food selection was based on preference for one crop over another. For each society of the Pacific, one of the starchy foods was ranked more highly than the others, usually being breadfruit, Colocasia (taro) or yams. The less favored starches were ranked as secondary foods, usually including bananas and certain types of taro. These foods were cultivated when the primary foods were unavailable (Pollock, 1992).

  • Hawai’i

    • 1. Poi-made from fermented taro
    • 2. Breadfruit, sweet potato
  • Samoa

    • 1. Colocasia taro, breadfruit
    • 2. Alocasia taro, green banana, yam
  • Guam

    • 1. Colocasia taro, yams
    • 2. Rice, breadfruit
  • CNMI

    • 1. Colocasia taro, yams
    • 2. Breadfruit
  • Palau

    • 1. Colocasia taro
    • 2. Cyrtosperma, Alocasia & Xanthosoma taro
  • Marshall Islands

    • 1. Breadfruit, pandanus
    • 2. Cyrtosperma taro
  • Pohnpei

    • 1. Yams
    • 2. Cyrtosperma taro, breadfruit, taro
  • Chuuk

    • 1. Breadfruit
    • 2. Colocasia taro, banana
  • Kosrae

    • 1. Breadfruit, Colocasia taro
    • 2. Banana
  • Yap

    • 1. Cyrtosperma taro
    • 2. Colocasia taro, yams, breadfruit, banana

*Colocasia, Cyrtosperma, Alocasia, Xanthosoma = taro genus’s (group, division, subfamily)

Common names:

Pacific Food Guide, Hawaii, Accompanying DishColocasia: taro, true taro, Polynesian taro, Asia taro, red taro

Cyrtosperma: giant taro, swamp taro

Alocasia: giant taro, elephant ear taro

Xanthosoma: Kong Kong taro, American taro

Accompanying Dish

Many Pacific Island societies required that an accompanying dish be included in the traditional meal. An accompanying dish could include “flesh foods” such as meat or seafood. These foods would be served in conjunction with the starchy foods to create a meal. In Hawai‘i, taro or poi (pounded fermented taro) was commonly served with fish. The Yapese people complimented their gagan (starch) with fish (niq) and ripe coconuts (mareum). In Chuuk, a cooked vegetable staple was distinguished from a side dish. Without the side dish, a meal was not complete. The Pohnpeian people considered breadfruit or taro the “bulk” of their meal, and it was not complete without sali, a term used for a protein dish that could include meat, fowl or seafood. Palauans also accompanied their ongraol (starch) with some type of odoim (animal food). In this way, many societies across the Pacific considered their meal satisfying only if their preferred starch choice had an appropriate accompanying dish (Pollock, 1992).

Food Production

Life was fundamentally structured around fishing, planting and harvesting crops. The magnitude to which Pacific Island societies utilized fishing or agricultural depended on location and a variety of environmental factors. Some Pacific Islands did more agricultural work, while others subsisted on fishing.

Many Pacific Island societies utilized certain phases of the year or “calendars” for specific steps of food production. For example, the Hawaiians divided their year into two seasons: Kau or summer (beginning in May), when it was dry and hot, and Ho‘oilo (beginning in October), when it was rainy and chilly. Among these varying seasons were different horticultural based occupations. After the ending of the heavy rains in February, gardens were planted with taro (kalo), sweet potato (‘uala), gourds (ipu), paper mulberry (wauke) and wood shrubs (olonā) on upper slopes, and yams (uhi) and arrowroot (pia) higher in the uplands. April was dedicated to tending the newly planted gardens, and by May, the plants were growing well, and certain varieties of sweet potato could be dug and eaten. By June, wild foods were plentiful in the uplands. In July, the gourds ripened in the lowlands and the upland farmers mulched their potato and taro patches. Early fall brought increasing rain showers with alternating clear weather. During this time, the main crop of sweet potatoes was harvested (Handy, 1991).

The Hawaiians also planted their crops based on the lunar cycle. One example is the planting of sweet potato or uala. The beginning of the dark phase of the waxing moon is most favored for planting. Hilo (first appearance of the moon in the west), Hoaka (second night moon), and the four Ku (third, fourth, fifth and sixth nights) moons are said to be good because “tubers of slips planted then will grow erect (ku) and sturdy” (Handy, 1991).

The Pohnpeian and Marshallese food systems both consisted primarily of agroforestry—multi-storied gardens of trees/shrubs grown among crops and animals. Nearly all production of crops was done by family units using local agroforestry technology. Traditional agroforestry generally did not exhaust the soils and provided ample amounts of food and other resources, such as timber, fiber and medicine ( There were no distinct rainy seasons in Pohnpei, but there were distinct seasons for the harvest of their two main staples—breadfruit (mahi) and yam (kehp). Breadfruit was harvested from May to August, and was preserved in order to supplement the Pohnpeian diet in the off season, and to provide food security during natural disasters. Yams were harvested from September to March. (Englberger, Lorens, Levendusky, Pedrus, Albert, Hagilmai, Paul, Nelber, Moses, Shaeffer, Gallen, 2009).

Gender Roles

Pacific Food Guide, Hawaii, Gender RolesThroughout many Pacific Island societies, the production of food was ultimately a community event, where everyone had their rightful role. The Hawaiian’s division of labor in the kauhale (home, village) was very definitive. It was believed that men of the household needed to be protected from contamination of their food and work gear by women, who were periodically “unclean” due to their menstruation. Therefore, the production and preparation of food was dependent upon men. This principle led to restrictions on who could or could not do what, in connection with the simplest activities of daily living. Every aspect of taro economy and culture was man’s work. This included the making and tending of fields, terraces, ditches, planting, cultivating and harvesting taro, steaming taro in the earth oven, and peeling and pounding the steamed corms to make poi. Women were responsible for raising children, preparing pandanus leaves, plaiting mats and baskets, and performing all of the complex operations of tapa making. Women also gathered salt from evaporated salt water pools and stored it, and collected shellfish and edible seaweed (Handy, 1991).

Agricultural work was mainly done by men in Samoan culture as well. Women helped weed and harvest the garden, but the success of the garden was said to be dependent on the hard work of men. Women produced daily protein foods like fish and shellfish gleaned from near shore reefs. Men provided the high status protein foods from deep sea fishing and animal butchering. Food preparation was also separated by gender. Men went to the gardens to gather taro (talo), bananas (faʻi), breadfruit (ulu), and coconuts (niu), while women gathered firewood and collected breadfruit or banana leaves to cover the earth oven (umu). Men and boys scraped the breadfruit and taro and peeled the bananas. Most importantly, men grated the meat from ripe coconuts and squeezed the grating to make coconut cream. Building the umu and cooking the food was also the task of men (Bindon, 1988).

Besides the division of gender for food production, many Pacific Island societies enforced special food rules; forbidding or prescribing certain foods for particular occasions (e.g. lactating mother, before a man goes fishing). Rules existed for who should eat apart from others and what foods should be eaten. Gender was a very common distinction for who could eat what. Women’s food differed from men’s in that they were not allowed to eat certain foods or handle food when menstruating (Pollock, 1992).

For example, it was forbidden (kapu) for men and women to eat together in ancient Hawaiian society; each would have to eat in a separate house. Their food could not be cooked in the same earth oven (imu); therefore a man would have to cook both his and his wife’s food separately.

The Yapese used “eating classes” to clearly distinguish food between genders. The Yapese marked several aspects of food use: where it was cooked, who cooked it, and who could have access to it. Land was designated specifically for men, women and children according to their rank in the community. Each class had their own taro patch, garden, food-bearing trees and water supply. Fish was also divided. Men and women could not eat out of the same pot, nor could the same pot be used in preparing their separate food (Pollock, 1992).

Cooking Methods

Pacific Food Guide, Hawaii, Cooking MethodAll of the starchy foods that were important to Pacific Island societies had to be cooked. This included taro, yams and breadfruit. This was necessary to rid them of toxic substances located under the skin. The accompanying dish could be either cooked or eaten raw. The predominant mode of cooking in the Pacific Islands was baking in an earth oven, as this was a major way of applying fire to food, and it could be used for most foods that needed to be cooked. Cooking in an earth oven either baked or steamed the food, depending on whether water was added. For example, Hawaiian’s preferred to steam their taro corms in the earth oven (imu). The Samoan earth oven (umu) was closely related to the Hawaiian earth oven. However, the Samoan earth oven was made above ground, rather than in a pit. The different modes of cooking altered the taste of foods, and Pacific Island societies varied in their preferences.

There were two types of earth ovens commonly used: household and communal. These earth ovens differed in size, amount and types of foods cooked in them, and the social groups involved in their use. However, there are certain elements of earth ovens common to all Pacific Island societies:

  1. A hole was dug to varying depths, either near the house or withinthe house itself
  2. The hole was lined with big stones or other material that couldconduct heat
  3. Suitable firewood was placed on these stones
  4. Fire was lit on these stones
  5. When the stones were hot, the ashes were moved to one side & someof the hot stones were picked out of the fire with tongs
  6. A bed of green leaves was placed over the hot stones
  7. The foods to be cooked were placed on the bed of green leaves
  8. Hot rocks were returned on top of the food
  9. The hole was covered with leaves of breadfruit, ti, banana,heliconia,coconut fronds, or an old mat, then soil was placed on top
  10. The making of the earth oven itself was usually men’s work
    (Pollock, 1992)

Nutrition Transition of the Pacific: Traditional to Contemporary

Obesity is a global epidemic affecting both developed and developing countries (Wang & Lobstein, 2006; WHO, 2000). Despite the limited amount of data of obesity in Pacific Island populations, overweight and obesity prevalence rates have risen in recent decades alongside other non-communicable chronic diseases (e.g., type 2 diabetes) (Hodge, Dowse, Zimmet, & Collins, 1995; Pacific Islands Health Officers Association, 2010). Solutions to address and prevent obesity in the region include strategies to support healthy eating and active lifestyles through encouraging the consumption of traditional foods such as non-imported fruits, vegetables, and meats, as well as embracing culture and traditional physical activities like planting and fishing (Simmons et al., 2009; Swinburn et al., 2007). However, environmental and social changes in the Pacific Islands make discussions about what is considered a traditional food and what are acceptable practices in the diet sensitive and complex. It is important to understand changes in the food environment in the context of the respective cultures of the Pacific Islands, specifically within the United States Affiliated Pacific (USAP), before attempting any dietary recommendations as cultural relevancy increases the likelihood for a positive impact.


Nutrition transition refers to the shifts that have occurred in diet and in physical activity patterns. Modern societies have moved to diets high in saturated fats, sugar, and refined foods but low in fiber, and to lifestyles with lower activity levels (Popkin & Gordon-Larsen, 2004). These changes have been related to the shift from high prevalence patterns of infectious disease to non-communicable chronic disease (Popkin & Gordon-Larsen, 2004).


Cultural identity, migration, social-cultural factors, food security, globalization and trade, as well as colonialism have been implicated as influence themes of nutrition transition (Bruss, Morris, & Dannison, 2003; Cassels, 2006; Kahn & Sexton, 1988; Linnekin, 1983; Torsch, 2002). Therefore, understanding the nutrition transition in the USAP provides valuable insight on the changes in tradition and diet of the Region. Cultural identity involves how a person thinks and expresses oneself as part of a culture or group and may be shaped by processes of acculturation and enculturation. Acculturation refers to the changes in attitudes, behaviors, beliefs and values for an individual of one culture with a new culture (Williams & Berry, 1991), whereas enculturation refers to the process of socialization or re-socialization with the heritage culture norms (Cano et al., 2012; Herskovits, 1948). Levels of acculturation and enculturation for individuals vary but some integrate traditional heritage, while adopting some practices of the foreign culture. Some assimilate and adopt all of the practices and beliefs of the foreign culture but no longer identify with their traditional heritage. Conversely, others identify only with the traditional heritage regardless of the foreign practices or have no preference for either culture and are not concerned with any of the issues (Berry, 2003). As cultural revivalists search for an authentic heritage and rediscover culture, they also create it (Linnekin, 1983). Regardless, enculturation and/or acculturation influences nutrition transition as the integration of cultures and food throughout the generations leads to the evolvement of traditional into a contemporary sense.


The USAP is located in the areas of Micronesia and Polynesia. The region’s first settlers carried crops and animals to establish a subsistence foundation of farming and fishing (Kahn & Sexton, 1988). Early Pacific voyagers allowed for many ancient traditions to spread widely across the Pacific returning home with many types of plants and animals to cultivate and consume (Kahn & Sexton, 1988). However, each of the indigenous islands of the USAP has a long history of foreign influence and dependence. Countries like Spain, Germany, Japan, Britain and the United States (US) have occupied many of the islands making lasting impressions on the lifestyles and food system environments of the Pacific Islands; for example, foreign sailors, merchants, ambassadors, missionaries, and military brought shares of goods to the Pacific Islands from areas outside the Pacific. As a result, some crops, like guava, known to have originated in other areas of the world have become local and deemed traditional in Pacific Island food systems.


Even with these foreign influences, Pacific Island cultures still retain distinct social-cultural values. Food is viewed as a demonstration of love, generosity and care, while thinness is perceived as a result of illness or inadequate feeding (Bruss et al., 2003). The culture emphasizes the role of food in bringing families together but time has influenced drastic changes in diet composition and physical lifestyles of Pacific Islanders. This is becoming a common theme for Pacific Islanders who have a desire for cultural acceptance but also for balance to be healthy.


Part of the balance to be healthy includes being food secure. Natural disasters known to Pacific Islands, namely typhoons/hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, high tides and floods, have repeatedly damaged island infrastructures and agricultural systems, which influences the local food supply. Depending on the magnitude, islands may be left flooded and barren. Several technologies protect plants and structures from the damaging effects of global climate change, but fewer people are investing in the soils for growing plants for food (Spennemann, 1998). Instead, people have resulted to the non-perishable goods of rice, canned meat, instant meals, and other imported goods as (Gittelsohn, Haberle, Vastine, Dyckman, & Palafox, 2003) they are not only convenient, but do not spoil in the event of a disaster, alleviating the fears of famine.


Ironically, some foods that are naturally available to Pacific Islanders, like fish, return back to the islands for sale as canned foods (Nero, Burton, Jonas, & Taulung, 2000). The lack of sufficient infrastructure to be globally competitive forces many Pacific Island nations to sell their fishing rights to foreign nations (Cassels, 2006). Some nations sell these resources to merchants for global trade, so that Pacific Islanders only receive a fraction of the their worth (Cassels, 2006). Despite the direct resource to fresh fish, people have become dependent on foreign nations for economic development and also imported food. Striving for a successful cash economy has become mixed with the belief that imported foods are superior to local foods. This increased reliance of imported foods rather than on traditional foods partially characterizes the dietary globalization and nutrition transition occurring in the region (Evans, Sinclair, Fusimalohi, & Liava’a, 2001).


To further elucidate these concepts, the following is an example of the Chamorro nutrition transition on Guam. The pre-colonial diet of ancient Chamorros was predominantly plant-based food, supplemented with animal foods comprised mostly of fish, crustaceans, fruit bat and birds (Cassels, 2006). Subsistence living, such as farming, fishing, hunting, roof thatching, woodcutting, creating pottery, and preparing food, involved physical activities for men, women, and children alike (Marsh, 2009). The arrival of Spanish colonizers brought the introduction of four-legged animals, mainly deer and pigs (Bevacqua, 2009). Then the Americans started training the first women to work jobs away from traditional household roles and responsibilities (Cruz, 2009). Meanwhile children started going to school, learning new languages, and adopting foods from visitors (Yamashita, 2009). The post-World War II era provided a gateway to both the Western diet and urbanization for many of the islands, to include regular screen time in households, sedentary jobs, and canned meats like Spam and corned beef. These canned and imported foods became valuable sources for food security when natural disasters, such as Super Typhoons Paka and Pongsona, swept through the island. Today, many Chamorros identify with Spam as part of the culture and diet, but are not consuming the variety of plant-based traditional foods from their indigenous ancestors.


The potential effects of nutrition transition on dietary lifestyles of indigenous peoples span a wide range. Traditional values and beliefs related to food and physical activity may be lost in modernization so that methods of food preparation and storage, amongst many other traditions, are not passed down to newer generations. There are also foods considered traditional today that may not have existed on the islands pre-colonization. However, the promotion of traditional foods and food related practices, whether they are indigenous or newly adopted, may be a positive reason for the revival and embrace of culture. The cultures of the region were known to have healthy diets, regular physical activity, and low prevalence rates of noncommunicable chronic disease. Continual efforts to empower cultures of the region will be beneficial to support positive change and health outcomes.


The diets of Pacific Islanders are continually changing. Knowledge and awareness of nutrition and the Pacific Island cultures, allows the possibility to balance the old with the new to achieve a healthy diet. The Pacific Food Guide aims to help make connections between Pacific traditional foods and nutrition. Tradition, no matter how authentic it is perceived, is ever changing and adaptable. Rather than being limited to any specific definition of what is traditional, there is an opportunity for cultures to grow and weave the diversity that prevails in the world today.


Food has played a wide role in many dimensions of traditional life in the Pacific. It not only served as a biological need to survive, but played numerous sociocultural roles that helped to integrate all aspects of family, community and life in the Pacific Islands. This chapter explores several dimensions of food and its meaning, to display common themes that are widespread across the Pacific Islands. We acknowledge that this chapter does not include all aspects of food culture for each Pacific Island. Our goal is to further develop this section with in-depth analysis of each Pacific Island region that is associated with the United States. Through interactions with native peoples and elders of these Pacific Islands, we hope to gather stories, traditions and additional cultural practices that will help to further develop our knowledge and understanding of these beautiful and unique Pacific Islands.