Eating local is in vogue. There are farmers markets every day of the week in different parts of Oahu.

But it’s actually more expensive to grow food locally than to import it from California, according to Honolulu mayoral candidate Kirk Caldwell.

During a wide-ranging interview published on Feb. 29 in Hawaii Pacific University’s Kalamalama newspaper, Caldwell answered a question from HPU students about food independence.

“Right now it costs more to grow here than to import in from California,” he said. “They do a better job at it, they’re more efficient, and they have the systems in place.”

Is Caldwell’s statement correct?

To find out, Civil Beat asked Caldwell to explain how he came up with that statement.

He cited several reports.

UH scientists estimate that the state imports 85 percent of its food.

But Hawaii can produce some food more cheaply than California, says University of Hawaii professor Matthew K. Loke, who co-authored a 2008 report on Hawaii’s food self-sufficiency.

“In Hawaii, we are a better producer than California in commodities such as sweet potatoes, taro, breadfruit, watercress, papayas, bananas, pineapples, macadamia nuts, etc,” Loke said in an email.

“We can grow almost anything in Hawaii but production costs (land, water, labor, fuel imported fertilizer/pesticides and transportation) are higher,” he said.

Loke added that California “grow(s) a lot of salad vegetables because of large tracts of land, cheap water, availability of cheaper labor, and a fairly long growing season.”

Caldwell told Civil Beat that when he said “food,” he meant the food that we generally eat everyday.

He said he was talking about products that are eaten by a majority of the population. “I’m talking about the kinds of vegetables and products that are sold in supermarkets in our state,” Caldwell said. “When was the last time you ate some ulu [breadfruit]?”

He also pointed to a 2004 USDA report which found that California produces milk more cheaply than any other state, including Hawaii.

Caldwell also cited a 2007 report from the Rocky Mountain Institute. But the report doesn’t specifically compare the cost of growing food in California with the cost of doing so in Hawaii. But the report does provide a general comparison between the costs of growing on the mainland versus Hawaii.

The institute estimates that it is 25 percent more expensive to grow food in Hawaii compared with the mainland. Meanwhile, California produces nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables.

The chart below shows the cost breakdown for retail food in Hawaii and the U.S. mainland:

Bottom Line: UH professor Matthew Loke notes that there are some specialty foods that are cheaper to grow in Hawaii than California. But Caldwell was talking about everyday foods. We find his statement to be True.

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