Rethinking Hawai‘i: Continuing Momentum for Local Agriculture
Local farmers are still struggling, despite a surge in consumer demand. Experts tell us how to bolster our food security and commit to locally grown for our future.
“If you wanted to see first hand what decades of neglect and lack of investment in Hawai‘i’s food production and security looked like, all you had to do was walk through any grocery store in Hawai‘i during the early days of this pandemic,” says Chad Buck. “The empty shelves and panicked shoppers provided a powerful argument for Hawai‘i to reconsider our near total dependence on others outside Hawai‘i to provide our food.” When the pandemic dramatically reduced incoming flights, Buck, the owner of Hawai‘i Foodservice Alliance, which serves most grocery stores and retailers across the state, had to charter planes to keep Hawai‘i fed.
Meanwhile, as shelter-in-place mandates descended, the phones at Farm Link Hawai‘i fell eerily silent. The online platform connected consumers—mostly restaurants—with farms, but restaurants were closing. Farmers watched demand collapse. And then the alerts started flooding Farm Link founder Rob Barreca’s phone—at one point every 20 seconds, each ping signaling a new sign-up by an individual customer. By the end of May, Farm Link had gone from about 200 new accounts in January and February to more than 6,000, and Barreca moved from packing vegetables in a 40-foot refrigerated container in a dirt parking lot in Hale‘iwa to a 7,000-square-foot warehouse in Kalihi.
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Similar stories proliferated throughout Hawai‘i: More than 3,000 people signed up for the Hawai‘i Farm Bureau’s Farm to Car program within hours of its launch. O‘ahu Fresh went from delivering an average of 100 to 200 orders a week to 1,500. MA‘O Organic Farms made up most of its lost restaurant sales with increased demand at the Kaka‘ako farmers market and community supported agriculture sign-ups. Even Kualoa Ranch, its tourist operations shuttered, pivoted with a drive-thru market for its pork, beef and produce that proved popular. “People who always wanted to support and felt that local was a good thing, all of a sudden started supporting with their dollars instead of their likes,” says Taylor Kellerman, director of diversified agriculture and land stewardship at Kualoa Ranch. “It’s something I’ve never seen in my 20 years in agriculture.”
“We have to demand real change. I think if we’re really, really going to get a food system that’s going to navigate future disasters, the government absolutely has to step up.”
— Kristin Frost Albrecht
If it seemed like it was mostly good news in the world of Hawai‘i ag, perhaps it’s because these stories, like stars, shine brightest in the darkest nights. For despite these individual successes, Hawai‘i’s agriculture sector is still hemorrhaging money. It’s estimated that Hawai‘i’s farmers and ranchers are suffering a 50% decline in sales, on average. Estimated sales losses for local food producers alone average $2 million per week. “When you consider the hotels and the restaurants closed, the 200,000 a month less tourists here, all the increased demand in CSAs is really a drop in the bucket—I wouldn’t even call it 5% of what has been lost,” says Jesse Cooke, who oversees Ulupono Initiative’s agricultural strategy and investments. “Nobody should think that the farmers are doing all right, because it’s just not the case.”
The dysfunction revealed in the food system around the country—as farmers destroyed crops and dumped milk while hundreds of Americans lined up for hours at food banks—was also laid bare in Hawai‘i. The Hawai‘i Foodbank on O‘ahu and The Food Basket on Hawai‘i Island relied mostly on food donated from restaurants and federal commodity shipments provided by the national network of food banks. All those sources came to a halt, while Hawai‘i contended with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. The Hawai‘i Foodbank’s annual budget for food is $400,000. In April alone, it purchased $900,000 in food from local and national sources, and anticipated spending a total of $3 million by the end of June.
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To try to bridge the two food supply chains that exist in the country—one that serves large institutions and restaurants, and the other grocery stores and individuals—the U.S. Agriculture Department awarded grants to food distributors that partnered with nonprofits to feed their communities. Of about $5 million awarded to Hawai‘i companies and groups, less than half went to local farmers. Suisan, a distributor on Hawai‘i Island servicing retailers and restaurants, had received about $620,000 to provide meat to Hawai‘i, which it might have been able to source locally with beef and seafood, but the USDA stipulated the protein had to be in the form of cooked chicken and cooked pork, and no local producer could handle that volume and processing. Ham Produce and Seafood was given $3.5 million, the largest grant in Hawai‘i, and purchased vegetables and melons from Aloun Farms and Sugarland Farms, but also carrots from California and potatoes from a Washington farmer who needed to move a billion pounds of potatoes.
But at The Food Basket, Executive Director Kristin Frost Albrecht thinks that Hawai‘i’s farmers can meet the demand—if they’re paid. “At our food banks, what saved the day is really the amount of local food we’ve been able to access easily,” she says. “So it behooves us to really support the local food economy.” In April, when the food banks saw their supplies critically low and were unable to get food shipments, the Hawai‘i Farm Bureau, in partnership with the counties and private foundations, worked on programs to purchase from local farmers and ranchers. The Food Basket continues to make a concerted effort to buy from local producers—before the pandemic, about 20% of its supplies were raised or grown on Hawai‘i Island; Albrecht estimates that’s up to 70% now, including 1,000 pounds of local beef a week, thanks to a public-private program founded by Hawai‘i County Councilmember Tim Richards, as well as 10,000 pounds of steamed and frozen ‘ulu from the Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Co-op. “For us to have our supply chain from the USDA disrupted the way it is, is a pretty big wake-up call,” she says. “We have to demand real change. I think if we’re really, really going to get a food system that’s going to navigate future disasters, the government absolutely has to step up. We’re 2,500 miles away from the continent.
“The way I see it, it’s a new economy. I would hope that the state would support that. This is an opportunity for food security for the long haul.”
— Kristin Frost Albrecht
Many stakeholders in Hawai‘i agriculture recognize that opportunity. In the beginning of April, a group including Cooke, Kellerman, and others who work in various fields and organizations—from the Hawai‘i Farmers Union to the Hawai‘i Farm Bureau, from an indigenous crops researcher at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources to the state director for USDA Rural Development—formed the Agricultural Response and Recovery Working Group. They came together on one platform—a rare occurrence among the often polarized groups.
Over the weeks, they hashed out an action, policy and funding plan aimed at keeping ranchers and farmers afloat, mobilizing local food production to address immediate community feeding needs, contributing to Hawai‘i’s economic recovery, and building a food system with a capacity to grow a more resilient Hawai‘i in times of crisis and in calm.
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It might have sounded daunting, but in a webinar presented to Hawai‘i Investment Ready, Claire Sullivan, director of development and impact at MA‘O Organic Farms and who helped convene the group, said: “We collectively already knew what it is that we need to do to make our food systems more robust and to take them from niche to mainstream. This is a big deal. We already know what we need to do.”
Some actions are currently underway. The Food Basket is rolling out Da Bux throughout grocery stores including Times, as well as participating farmers markets and CSAs statewide. The partially federally funded program effectively doubles SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) when purchasing locally grown produce. The Kohala Center, with initial funding from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Frost Family Foundation and Johnson ‘Ohana Foundation, is setting up the Full Calabash Fund, which offers grants to organizations that feed communities in need, provided at least half of the food they purchase is locally grown, raised or harvested.
Cooke believes now is the time to commit to projects that had been moving frustratingly slowly before the pandemic, in particular the state’s commitment to incorporate more locally grown food in state facilities such as schools, hospitals and prisons. Before the pandemic, he estimates daily school meals were only 2% or 3% local; he says the state should establish local purchasing minimums of 25% in five years, resulting in $11 million a year for farmers. “That would be a long-term project that would probably have the biggest single impact, and you could do it right now with the facilities you have,” he says. “We’ve done pilots where we proved that you can quadruple local content and actually decrease costs.”
To legislators and philanthropic foundations, the group has presented proposals that include updating and expanding already existing infrastructure, such as livestock processing facilities, and workforce development programs to help unemployed people transition into agriculture. The matrix of 50 actions the group produced is specific, thorough and concrete in a way that the state’s plans regarding agriculture weren’t.
“Pre-pandemic, we heard an endless stream of statements and goals regarding sustainable food production,” says Buck. “These statements proved to be dangerous and even counterproductive because they give a false sense of progress when no real actions were taken. Hard decisions followed by concrete and measurable action is our only path forward toward food security.
“Fighting this pandemic required efforts and sacrifice from absolutely every individual, business, nonprofit and government agency. This same level of commitment and comprehensive and inclusive approach will be the only way that meaningful food production in Hawai‘i will move forward.”
But the pandemic also demonstrated people are willing to shift their purchases to local, if they have the means to do so. Kellerman, in the Hawai‘i Investment Ready webinar, said: “We can’t squander the moment. This is one of the most significant behavioral changes since World War II—decades worth of human behavior have now been changed in a matter of months. We have to keep that momentum going.”