The Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Cooperative: How to Order Already Prepped ‘Ulu and Help the Hawai‘i Food Basket
‘Ulu was the cause of the mutiny on The Bounty. Today, will it signal a new revolution?
‘Ulu and collard soup
Photo: Martha Cheng
This pandemic has exposed the fragility of certain networks while also highlighting the strength of others—some that began with small actions years ago. In 2015, Dana Shapiro and her husband, Noa Lincoln, a professor in indigenous crops, began a 3.7 acre ‘ulu farm in what was once known as the Kona historic ‘ulu belt—a half-mile wide and 18 miles long, and by some estimates, used to produce 36,000 tons of breadfruit a year. They started at a time when agriculturists and writers proclaimed breadfruit’s ability to save the world.
But for all its press, “there was no market,” says Shapiro. Most people didn’t know what to do with ‘ulu, or if they did, they didn’t want to deal with its sticky sap. “If you wanted to sell, you had to process it, and processing didn’t make sense on a farm level. You needed economies of scale.” Shapiro, who used to consult for rural producers and worked with different cooperatives around the state, began reaching out to other farmers. In 2016, nine farms formed the Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Cooperative. That first year, the co-op processed about 20,000 pounds of ‘ulu, selling it already peeled, cooked and frozen. There are now 80 member farms across Hawai‘i Island and Maui, and in 2019, the co-op processed 100,000 pounds. In the years since its inception, the co-op has built its own processing facility, sold to restaurants and hospitals and secured a contract to supply all of Hawai‘i’s public schools.
SEE ALSO: Can We Ever Eat All Local in Hawai‘i?
Already prepared and cooked ‘ulu
Photo courtesy of the Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Cooperative
And then the new coronavirus hit. In the beginning of the lockdown, Shapiro saw sales drop almost entirely, and the co-op was sitting on about 18,000 pounds of ‘ulu. “We sold 2,000 pounds to the prisons for dirt cheap because they were willing to take it, but we lost a lot of money,” says Shapiro. “For minimally processed product, we literally charged them half the price per pound that we pay our farmers for fresh. It was just a little bit of cash flow and to make room in our freezers.” Her fear was not having enough storage space and money to pay farmers when ‘ulu season begins soon.
But in the weeks since, thanks to a partnership with Hawai‘i Island’s Food Basket and private donations, the Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Cooperative has helped address Hawai‘i’s growing food insecurity, as more than a third of the state’s workforce files for unemployment. About 5,000 pounds of ‘ulu were distributed through The Food Basket, Big Island’s food bank, which has been suffering shortages. “‘Ulu could save the day in the starch category, which is how we’ve always thought about it,” says Shapiro. While the mature breadfruit has now sold out, you can still donate co-crops, planted in concert with ‘ulu trees, such as kabocha and Okinawan sweet potato, via the Hawai‘i ‘Ulu website.
In the coming days, the co-op will also launch a subscription box that can be delivered to all the islands and includes member farmers’ products as well as from other producers, such as goat cheese, frozen cassava and frozen cane juice.
The hope is not just to feed people during the pandemic, but also after—that this crisis will strengthen Hawai‘i’s food resiliency and security, which the ‘ulu co-op has been working on quietly for years. In 1789, breadfruit instigated the mutiny on The Bounty, William Bligh’s ill-fated ship sent to Tahiti to collect breadfruit for propagation to feed slaves in the West Indies. Perhaps now, it will signal a new revolution in Hawai‘i against an overreliance on an import economy, whether it’s food or tourists.
Years ago, Shapiro said she formed the co-op because “it makes sense to work together, instead of in isolation.” And today, in spite of isolation.