“Buying local” is all the rage these days.

We are encouraged to buy local foods because they’re fresher, more nutritious and taste better, and because by doing so we contribute to the local economy, preserve rural landscapes, support our neighbors, and reduce our carbon footprints. Growing and consuming locally is particularly critical in Hawaii, where we hope it will help us address our island community’s economic vulnerability, protect our fragile environment, and perpetuate our cultural wealth.

However, local food production in Hawaii remains anemic. In a study released last week, the Ulupono Initiative highlighted a sobering USDA statistic; only about 8 percent of the food purchased in Hawaii is produced here.

Whole Foods Market is committed to supporting local suppliers in the communities that host our stores. In Hawaii we are especially sensitive to our potential impact and have built a particularly vigorous local purchasing program. In my capacity overseeing this program, I am fortunate to work with a passionate team dedicated to supporting Hawaii farmers and producers. This work offers both a great opportunity and a substantial responsibility to make a positive contribution to our community.

Given our aspiration to contribute to the growth of a robust Hawaii food system beyond the confines of our own stores’ walls, and our commitment to transparency regarding our supplies, we have decided to share details about our local sourcing efforts in Hawaii. By going beyond generic statements of intent and support, we hope to serve as a catalyst for a deeper discussion regarding local food production and consumption in Hawaii. We hope that our fellow retailers and restaurateurs will join this important conversation.
Here are some highlights from fiscal year 2011, which concluded September 25, 2011.

Here is the percentage of the company’s purchases made from Hawaii farms:

  • 31 percent — Kahala produce (total department)
  • 32 percent — Kahala prepared foods (produce only)
  • 46 percent — Maui produce (total department)
  • 54 percent — Maui prepared foods(produce only)
  • $2,626,406 — Whole Foods Market’s total purchases of produce, meat, milk, butter, cheese and honey grown by Hawaii farmers. This does not include purchases of Hawaii-made packaged products, regardless of ingredient origin.

The substantial discrepancy between the O`ahu and Maui percentages highlights the obvious but critical point that being located in a community that is home to many viable small farms results in a more substantial supply of locally grown food.

There are several factors that limit the volume of Whole Foods Market’s purchases from Hawaii farms:

There is not enough certified organic Hawaii-grown produce for us to meet the demand of our customers who prioritize organic over local. We need more organic farms in Hawaii to meet our customers’ demands.

Customers continue to purchase items such as apples and blueberries that are not yet grown in Hawaii at a commercial scale. We are able to grow most fruits and vegetables in Hawaii and there is exciting progress in this direction. Until these crops are grown locally, customers can help the local to import ratio by eating more of the types of produce that are already grown here.

Growth of our agricultural sector is stymied by systemic barriers, including the high per-acre cost of land for sale and unfavorable lease terms of land for rent. These challenges must be overcome through a collaborative effort of landowners, businesses and county and state level government, with support from the broader community.

Percentage of the company’s statewide sales generated by local products:

  • 15 percent — meat sales driven by Maui beef and lamb (This is the percentage of total meat sales, including all species: beef, pork, etc. except
 poultry.
)
  • 34 percent — coffee sales driven by Hawaii-grown coffee (This is the percentage of bulk and packaged coffee beans, not including prepared beverages.)
  • 22 percent — fluid milk sales driven by Hawaii-grown milk
  • 5 percent — grocery sales driven by Hawaii-made foodstuffs
  • 5 percent — health and beauty sales driven by Hawaii-made products
  • 13 percent — Whole Foods Market’s total storewide sales derived from Hawaii-grown produce, meat and dairy products, seafood from Hawaiian waters, and Hawaii-made packaged products consisting of Hawaii-grown and/or imported ingredients.

These sales numbers highlight customers’ enthusiastic response to local products such as beef, milk and coffee. They also expose the dearth of local product available to sell; there is no local poultry, little pork, few dairy products, and a lack of value-added grocery items (particularly certified organic products). The demand is there, waiting for the supply to materialize.

At Whole Foods Market we see these numbers as reference points, giving us a foundation to build upon as we strengthen our local purchasing efforts at the existing two stores and gear up the supply chain for our third store that will open in Kailua next spring and hopefully additional stores to come over the next few years.  The commitment and passion of individuals and teams at the store level is critical to the success and continued growth of the local program. So, too, are the dedicated efforts of our suppliers and the enthusiastic support of our customers.

We invite you to join the ranks of customers who choose to buy local. Each of us has the potential to help develop a robust local food system with our own household purchasing choices. As individuals and businesses we can also support policies and make decisions that enable existing and aspiring farmers and entrepreneurs to grow and make more food in Hawaii.

Here’s to eating locally!

About the author: Claire Sullivan currently serves as Hawaii coordinator, purchasing & public Affairs for Whole Foods Market’s Hawaii stores.  Prior to joining Whole Foods Market, Claire managed Maui Land & Pineapple Company’s sustainable diversified agriculture program. She has also worked as a legislative analyst for Rep. Cynthia Thielen, at The Nature Conservancy, and with the Hawaii Community Loan Fund. After completing high school in Honolulu, Claire received a bachelor’s degree from the London School of Economics and a master’s degree in environmental policy with a focus on organic agriculture from Oxford University.