Near the center of Kamehameha Schools’ nine-block section of Kakaako where people can live, work, eat and shop in the same neighborhood is an urban farm that may be unique in the islands.

Kerry Kakazu grows crops like lettuce, scallions, Thai basil and golden corn in the back of an 800-square-foot room in a two-story building on Auahi Street. He uses mist sprayers and LED lighting, and his crops are planted on trays stacked on metal racks.

As far as Kakazu knows, MetroGrow Hawaii is the only urban vertical farm in the state. In Honolulu, where high-rises keep sprouting, some community members want to see more of them.

Kerry Kakazu, owner of MetroGrow Hawaii, said he uses mists, LED lighting and controlled temperatures to grow his crops indoors. MetroGrow Hawaii is an urban, vertical farm, meaning crops are planted densely and stacked on trays, taking up a small area of space, rather than being spread across acres of land outdoors.

Kerry Kakazu, owner of MetroGrow Hawaii, uses mists, LED lighting and controlled temperatures to grow his crops indoors in a small space.

Noelle Fujii/Civil Beat

“As land gets scarcer and there’s more development, I think being able to look at these kinds of alternatives to farming is going to be essential to keeping up with supply and moving Hawaii toward self-sufficiency,” Kakazu said.

He started MetroGrow Hawaii about two years ago and sells his crops regularly to seven restaurants across urban Honolulu and the two Foodland Farms at Ala Moana Center and in Aina Haina. 

In recent months, Kakazu participated in discussions led by a team of seven community members trying to address how more local food can be made available in urban Honolulu.

Since the beginning of 2016, Honolulu has been one of 27 partners in the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Local Foods, Local Places Program. It provides assistance in developing networks for production and distribution of food to promote economic development and make local food more accessible in urban areas.

“As land gets scarcer and there’s more development, I think being able to look at these kinds of alternatives to farming is going to be essential.” — Kerry Kakazu

Honolulu discussion leaders have focused on how local food awareness can be incorporated into neighborhood planning, how food security can be increased and how easily accessible food can help revitalize communities.

This could mean creating more community gardens or assisting programs like pantries that collect, store and distribute food. It could also mean encouraging more farmers markets or enterprises that allow customers to buy produce directly from a farm they invest in.

And it could mean more vertical farms or rooftop agriculture.

While they’ve yet to work on actually implementing their ideas, they have developed a draft plan that identifies feasible tasks that can be done within a two-year period, said Melissa Kramer, who runs the EPA program nationally.

After holding meetings to get community input, the Honolulu committee worked with a technical assistance team provided by the EPA to identify the actions they wanted to focus on.

That team included representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The team will also help local participants find funding for the actions identified in the Honolulu plan once it’s finalized.

Competition For Space 

As urban Honolulu grows, “we should be more thoughtful about how we’re locating food next to where people live,” said Daniel Simonich, a Honolulu steering committee member for the Local Foods, Local Places Program.

The Hawaii Community Development Authority and Oahu Fresh, an organization that connects local food to houses, schools and restaurants, had submitted Honolulu’s application for the EPA program at the end of 2015.

HCDA spokesman Garett Kamemoto said the agency believes this is an important project and is something the agency would like to continue working on. Simonich had spurred its involvement when he worked as a planner at the agency. He no longer does, and Kamemoto said it’s trying to figure out who at HCDA can continue the work.

Honolulu's Local Foods, Local Places steering committee held multiple discussions with the community to find out what issues they have concerning local food and what they want to see.

Honolulu’s Local Foods, Local Places steering committee held community discussions regarding the need for more local food options.

Credit: PlaceMatters

The committee has focused on Kakaako, but its concepts could be applied to any urban area.

“Local food,” Simonich said, could be defined as fruits and vegetables grown within a neighborhood, on Oahu or at least somewhere in the islands.

One challenge is local food endeavors must compete for space with more profitable uses — like condos and retail developments.

“In the urban core, because there’s so much pressure for higher, more profitable uses, there’s not a big push to say, ‘Let’s set aside this area for urban production,’” Kakazu said. “It’s too valuable a piece of land.”

“We should be more thoughtful about how we’re locating food next to where people live.” — Daniel Simonich

The issues of affordability and competition for space were evident in the closure of Feeding Hawaii Together, one of the largest food pantries on Oahu, which shut its doors Dec. 1, Simonich said.

The food pantry operated out of a 19,000-square-foot warehouse on Keawe Street, a location it had for 15 years, giving away 3 million pounds of canned goods, fresh produce and dry food each year. But when that building was sold, the pantry couldn’t find anywhere to go that fit its requirements for space, location and affordability.

According to Executive Director Charlie Lorenz, the pantry received most of its food from Hawaii Foodbank, but there was also a time when it received produce grown at a farm in Hilo. 

Pamela Boyar, a steering committee member and director of development for FarmLovers Farmers’ Markets, a company that organizes five farmers’ markets across the island, said one of her markets at the old Sears parking lot at Ala Moana Center was forced to move about three years ago when condos started being developed in the area. 

Local produce for sale at the Pearlridge Farmer's Market held near Sears. Saturday. 13 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Produce for sale at the Pearlridge Farmer’s Market in February 2015.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Her Kakaako Farmers’ Market has since moved to a parking lot at Ward Warehouse and runs for about four hours every Saturday with 60 local businesses, but with the shopping center scheduled for demolition and redevelopment, she’s concerned she’ll probably have to again relocate. The market’s lease runs until January 2018.

“We came here three years ago before Kakaako was really building up, and now we figured in five years it would be the perfect place for us to be because we knew all the stuff was coming in,” she said. “But if we lose our spot, then where are we?”

Redevelopment also forced a community garden on Cooke Street to move, said Hunter Heaivilin, an agricultural planner and steering committee member. The garden was located on a parcel that will be redeveloped into a 17-story tower with 104 micro units

According to Justine Espiritu, outreach coordinator for Oahu Fresh and another steering committee member, the lack of available space means that local food efforts have to be more collaborative, with different projects perhaps operating out of a common space.

Working Food Into Planning

With the construction of rail, Kakaako’s population of about 11,000 residents is expected to double.

According to Heaivilin, part of the action plan is to urge developers, landowners and government officials to keep in mind that there’s an interest in these types of projects and spaces, and they should be incorporated into future planning.

The opportunity is enhanced in Kakaako, according to Simonich, because it’s zoned for mixed uses.

“You can have a market where people live above the market. How cool is that? You just go downstairs,” he said. “The future of planning is better integrating all these uses.”

He cites transit-oriented development planning as another example: Strategies could include rerouting a bus to stop at a food destination or putting a farmer’s market at rail stations, Simonich said.

Waianae farming/crops along Waianae Valley Road. 19 nov 2016

As agricultural land gets scarcer, communities will have to look at new farming models to produce sufficient fresh food.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Local food could also help revitalize a neighborhood, which is one of the goals specified in the action plan for Kakaako Makai, a portion of the district south of Ala Moana Boulevard and an area that’s faced challenges with vandalism and homeless people camping out.

Bringing in food trucks, farmer’s markets and gardens would create productive activity in an otherwise troubled and underutilized area, Simonich said.

There’s also the issue of food security. 

Hawaii imports about 90 percent of its food, so if a natural disaster were to cut off supplies from outside sources, the state only has enough food to last 10 days, Simonich said.

In addition, Kakaako lacks enough available food within the district, he said. There’s only one grocery store, Marukai Wholesale Mart, which will be displaced with development, and Down to Earth Organic & Natural and Whole Foods Market won’t move into the area for years.

The plan proposes the hiring of a coordinator to advance and develop local food efforts, and the adoption of policies to allow edible landscapes in public spaces.

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