Kapiolani Community College’s farmers market has changed from a joyous Saturday hangout for local residents into what critics call a “tourist trap” jammed with tour buses and milling visitors.
“A lot of the local residents are feeling like they have been pushed out of the market. Some of them don’t go anymore,” said food writer Joan Namkoong, a founder of the KCC market.
My neighbor, Wendy Wyckoff, says, “I just wish there were a time to go when it wasn’t so crowded.”
I still go to the KCC market from time to time because I like the inexpensive bunches of anthuriums from Green Point Nursery in Hilo and buying big bags of fresh kale and arugula. But each time I arrive, I steel myself for getting jostled by the surging mob.
KCC’s Saturday Farmers’ Market has gone through a decade of operation. As it continues in its 11th year, I called the marketʻs three founders to find out how they feel about the changes.
Food writer and and market founder Namkoong, lives in Kamuela on Hawaii Island now. She remembers watching proudly along with her co-founders Dean Okimoto, owner of Nalo Farms, and Conrad Nonaka, director of the Culinary Institute of the Pacific, when the KCC market opened in September 2003.
On opening day, a couple of hundred people showed up to buy vegetables and fruit from 20 booths.
“Within the first hour, the vendors had sold out everything they had. They didn’t know what to expect,” said Namkoong.
The marketʻs popularity surged, growing to 68 booths now, welcoming about 7,000 shoppers each Saturday — most of them visitors.
Namkoong said the market was planned for local residents. They never envisioned it as a tourist destination.
“It is good to expose visitors to local produce but bringing them in by the bus loads, I find a little troubling,” said Namkoong.
Namkoong admits she enjoys and frequents local markets when she travels herself but she’s wistfully nostalgic, wishing the KCC market could return to what it was in the old days: a place where neighbors met to shop for their rainbow papayas and treats such as Hamakua mushrooms and Kula strawberries while socializing over hot coffee and fresh-baked mango scones.
Now on Saturdays, a steady parade of trolleys and large tour buses pulls up by the white chapel at the entrance to the market, letting off more than 4,000 tourists many of whom are from Japan.
JTB customer service representative Jon Stanley, who was overseeing his company’s tour buses on Saturday, said, “Besides generating traffic, I hope we are generating a lot of revenue for the farmers.”
There are the crowds, and another change that hovers over the white tents of the market like a dark cloud — the death of a worker who was run over by a market delivery truck March 15.
It happened an hour before the market opened and has prompted a cascade of additional safety precautions.
Annie Runland, a 27-year-old University of Hawaii student, was killed while she was helping set up the Licious Dishes vegan food booth. A 23-year-old woman was backing up a MAʻO Organic Farms delivery truck when it went out of control and slammed into the Licious Dishes tent, running over Runland and injuring two other workers.
Namkoong said she was “shocked and devastated” to hear the news. “I hope it never happens again.”
It’s the only accident since the market began doing business. Namkoong remembers a near accident early on when a confused shopper drove a car through the tightly packed lanes of tents, scaring many vendors, but no one was hurt.
Since the March 15 fatal accident, the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation and Kapiolani Community College, the co-sponsors of the market, have tightened up their enforcement of existing safety procedures,
Farm Bureau President Chris Manfredi says he is uncertain if the market’s current procedures had anything to do with the accident but he wants every precaution in place.
The police investigation is focusing on possible driver error or a mechanical problem with the delivery truck.
Manfredi says from now on shoppers will be prohibited from entering the market before the official opening time of 7:30 a.m. Some vendors had been allowing customers in earlier to reserve produce for purchase after the market opened. Manfredi says: “Fewer people, less risk.”
But this irks some local residents who like to get in early and out of the market before the tourists arrive. However, the vendors I spoke with Saturday say enforcing the starting time is a great improvement, allowing them to set up safely and more quickly without having to be distracted by shoppers.
Shoppers have to vacate the market when it closes at 11 a.m.
Also, the vendors’ set up time will be strictly enforced with vendors’ vehicles allowed in only between 5:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. And any truck backing up, must be assisted by a “spotter”
But Sylvia Thompson of Licious Dishes, whose employee was killed in the accident and whose husband Pete was injured, says vendors should be allowed in the market even earlier.
Thompson says the current 90-minute set-up period has all the vendors scrambling to set up quickly in a tight space.
“The people with big trucks are coming in when people are setting up and sometimes it can be difficult for the trucks to maneuver,” said Thompson.
Manfredi says he will consider an earlier set-up time. He says everything is on the table now and there may be more changes after the completion of the police investigation.
Looking back, Namkoong says she is astounded that the KCC market has been such a huge success.
Namkoong says the idea to start the market came after she had written a lot about locally farmed foods in her columns for the Honolulu Advertiser. Namkoong envisioned a central place where local residents could buy farm-grown produce, which until then had been sold by farmers almost exclusively to restaurants and hotels.
“It was a time when Hawaii Regional Cuisine was starting to take off. I wanted access to the farm foods for my own home cooking. I figured others would like the locally farmed food too,” she said.
She says it took about six months to get the market off the ground. “The biggest hurdle was to find farmers who wanted to participate. Farmers are not known to be sociable and the idea of meeting the public and taking time away from their farms was not altogether palatable. But that changed once the market proved itself,” she said.
The KCC market’s popularity has generated more markets. Hawaii Farm Bureau now sponsors five farmers markets on Oahu, one on Hawaii Island and another on Kauai. But the KCC market remains the premier location with the most vegetables and fruits and exotic farm products.
Okimoto, who was Hawaii Farm Bureau president for nine years before Manfredi took over, says a positive aspect of the tourist onslaught at the KCC market is that it has forced farmers to be more creative. Now they sell more of what are called “value-added products” such as jams, jellies, pickles and hand creams visitors can take home as gifts.
But Okimoto says the tourists have greatly strained the marketʻs infrastructure and it bothers him that five tour companies he met with this summer were unwilling to pitch in money to help. Okimoto said of the meeting, “the tour companies told us they didn’t think they needed to contribute anything because they were bringing in so much business to the market. They acted like the were doing us a favor.”
“I would like to see more support from the tourist industry. They are the ones packing the market, “ Okimoto says.
Okimoto says it bothers him to see lines of 20 women, standing in the hot sun, waiting to use the bathrooms.
Okimoto thinks the tour companies could donate money to enlarge the bathroom. Or, he said, tourism organizations could help pay the salaries of four special-duty police officers hired by the market each Saturday to guide traffic that is partially generated by tour buses.
Nonaka of the KCC Culinary Institute also was at the meeting with the tour companies and confirms they have not been able to work out anything with the companies yet.
Nonaka and Okimoto did not name the tour companies with whom they met.
JTB, JALPAK, and Roberts Hawaii own the tour trolleys and buses I see most frequently when I am at the market.
Some local residents, who have become fed up with the tourists dominating the Saturday market, now frequent an alternative farmers market the Farm Bureau and KCC organized on the KCC campus Tuesday evenings from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m.
But the Tuesday market is a shadow of the Saturday market with only a few produce stands, two flower and orchid sellers and some booths selling pastries and prepared meals.
Kaimukī resident Alia Pan who used to be a regular shopper at the KCC Farmers Market on Saturdays says, “It’s great that it is making money for the farmers, but it is not for the people, it’s for the tourists. And I am fine with that. There are alternatives … other places to shop.”
My neighbor, Wendy Wyckoff, says, “Hawaii is becoming like everywhere else. You find a place you like here. Then everyone starts coming. It gets crowded. Then it is no longer special any more.”
I guess the difference is before mass tourism and internet advertising came to Hawaii, we were able to keep our favorite places special for longer periods of time.