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Editor’s Note: This story is part of an ongoing series, “Living Hawaii,” that examines our high cost of living and what it will take to bring down the price of paradise. Submit your suggestions for what cost-of-living stories we should cover, or join the conversation at our Cost of Living Facebook page.
Stanford Yuen walks through a maze of fish and produce vendors in Honolulu’s Chinatown, pointing out which fruits are grown in Hawaii and which made the five-and-a-half-day journey to the islands from the mainland.
“There’s nothing fancy about these markets,” Yuen said. “What you see is what you get.”
There’s a long-held belief Chinatown is the place to get bargains on produce. Interviews with sellers, shoppers and farmers, as well as some limited price comparisons, backed up the notion that prices are typically lower than at grocery stores.
That’s no small distinction in Hawaii, which has among the highest food prices in the country. A family of four on a budget in Hawaii will spend $1,172 per month on groceries, about $530 more than the national average, according to July data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Shoppers can find both farm fresh produce as well as the grocery store rejects. But quality, primarily esthetic quality, varies significantly from one vendor to the next.
“If you walk into a Whole Foods, you can close your eyes and pick any apple you want, it’s probably going to be very consistent in quality,” said Matthew Loke, an economist and professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
“The people that go to Chinatown, they self-select. They know what they’re buying and they know the condition of the product that they’re buying,” he said.
Weaving through vendors in Kekaulike Mall, one of three open-air market hubs in Chinatown, Yuen arrives finally at You Market #2, where he finds a small assortment of neatly arranged vegetables selling at a fraction of what they cost in mainstream supermarkets.
Locally grown cucumbers sell for $1.39 per pound at You Market #2, compared to $2.99 at a Foodland supermarket, though prices constantly fluctuate depending on supply. The locally sourced purple cabbage is 60 cents less than Foodland’s.
Even the mainland produce sold at the produce stand – the onions, broccoli, celery and carrots – sell at lower prices than many supermarkets.
A lot of the price difference of Chinatown produce comes from lower overhead. There’s no mist of rain to shower vegetables at You Market #2, as happens at your local Foodland or Safeway.
Like other family-run operations in Chinatown, You Market #2 owner Paul Min said he doesn’t pay for advertising and if he loses money on sales one day, he takes the loss and doesn’t worry about having to pay employees.
“They work 40 hours a week, we put (in) 12 hour shifts everyday” said Min, who arrives at his market at 4:30 a.m.
Min operated the store out of this small corner of Kekaulike Mall for 19 years. In that time, he developed relationships with a handful of Chinese farmers in Waianae Valley and Kapolei, whom he buys produce from exclusively. Sometimes other farmers try to sell him produce at lower prices.
“That’s not the point,” he said. “I don’t know you, I don’t know your process.”
Min only does business with farmers certified by the state Department of Agriculture. That’s not the case with all produce vendors in Chinatown, he said.
Oddly shaped vegetables end up in Chinatown if large-scale wholesalers can’t sell them to supermarkets, as does produce that isn’t stored properly on the voyage to Hawaii, Min said.
U-shaped cucumbers that fill a cardboard box on the ground outside of 555 Market cost 89 cents per pound. Nearby, the market’s employees strip wilting leaves off a head of lettuce to expose the still-fresh leaves inside, which will be offered for sale.
An entire case of oranges might get rejected from a grocery store if the fruit appears too yellow, then end up sold in Chinatown, said Peter Oshiro, the environmental health program manager for the state Department of Health Sanitation Branch.
The off color doesn’t mean the fruit is any less safe to eat than a bright orange one. Food grade is measured by aesthetics – color, shape and size – and does not affect safety, he said.
He also said the department also hasn’t found a higher rate of food safety violations in Chinatown markets compared to other food establishments.
“We’re spoiled as Americans, that’s why we throw away so much food,” Oshiro said. “What we see in supermarkets is very high quality to the point where they even color the food or polish the fruit or all kinds of things to make it’s appearance nice. But it actually does not affect food safety at all.”
Sid Taibounlack of Sid’s Produce starts his day even earlier than Min does. One of about six middlemen who bring locally grown produce to vendors in Chinatown, Taibounlack wakes up at 3 a.m. to deliver boxes of greens. In the afternoons, he visits between 15 and 20 small farms around the island, gathering produce for the following day.
The farmers Taibounlack works with come from China, Thailand, Laos and the Philippines, so it helps that he speaks Laotian and a little Thai.
“Any produce, they like very, very fresh,” Taibounlack said of the shoppers in Chinatown. There’s no need to store produce in the chiller.
“There’s nothing fancy about these markets. What you see is what you get.” — Stanford Yuen, Chinatown resident
Taibounlack is part of what Loke, the economics professor, calls Chinatown’s “alternate wholesale network.”
Though much smaller and less complex, this local supply chain of immigrant farmers, middlemen and vendors mirrors that of Manhattan’s Chinatown, where a web of wholesalers and farmers exclusively supply vendors with vegetables used in Chinese, Korean and other Asian cuisines. They work independently of the wholesalers who supply the city’s mainstream supermarkets.
“There’s a mix, but I found the ethnic produce is being supplied by these speciality, Chinatown-based wholesalers,” said Valerie Imbruce, an economist and author of the book “From Farm to Canal Street: Chinatown’s Alternative Food Network in the Global Marketplace.”
Bok choy, napa cabbage and a variety of Chinese greens, as well as bitter melon, loofah, Chinese eggplants and tropical fruits all come from the Manhattan Chinatown’s independent network of distributors.
By contrast, vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers and garlic, typically well-stocked in grocery stores, come through the Hunts Point Produce Market, which supplies most of the New York’s produce, Imbruce said. If those vegetables cost less in Chinatown, it’s likely due to lower overhead.
Oahu farmer Phay Vanh doesn’t need a middleman.
For almost a decade, Vanh has sold produce she grows on her North Shore farm, first at a small stand in Maunakea Marketplace and more recently in the storefront along Hotel Street in Chinatown called B.I. Farms.
Okinawan squash and Chinese okra are her specialities, but customers can also find bundles of mint, lemongrass, ginger and turmeric at her store selling for less than half the price of those sold at a nearby Safeway. It’s a good mix of vegetables for her niche clientele.
“If you want to look for brussels sprouts or rosemary or thyme, you have to go to a supermarket,” said Camyl Dayrit-Schlenker, Vanh’s daughter-in-law, who works at the family store. “Chinatown is known for Chinese vegetables.”
“Organic” isn’t a label shoppers see a lot of in Chinatown. Dayrit-Schlenker said that even though her mother uses organic farming methods, she hasn’t gone through the process of becoming certified.
The produce at B.I. Market is refrigerated at night, but during they day it sits at room temperature because it’s expected to sell out the same day it arrives, often by the same customers who shop there daily.
“If you want to look for brussels sprouts or rosemary or thyme, you have to go to a supermarket. Chinatown is known for Chinese vegetables.” — Camyl Dayrit-Schlenker.
People hop off the city buses that run along Hotel Street, a main artery through Chinatown’s produce hub, to buy groceries before finishing their commute. Many other customers simply walk to the market from one of the many nearby high-rises.
Chu Lan Schubert-Kwock, president of the Chinatown Business and Community Association, is one of them. Over the years, she’s developed her own system of buying vegetables in Chinatown. First, she walks through the markets to see what her options are, then makes a second round to make her purchases.
“It’s a way of life and a culture and if you know what you’re doing you can really save money,” she said. “It’s fun, too. It’s funky.”
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