Food has always been an obsession in Hawaii: plate lunches, malasadas, kim chee, poke bowls, cracked seed, Korean fried chicken, you name it.
But never more than during this COVID-19 stay-at-home mandate when purchasing food, cooking meals and sitting down to eat has become the main activity of most peoples’ daily lives.
Retired computer programmer Ann Ruby emailed me, “It is a thrill just to go to Safeway and walk around a bit.”
In ghost town Waikiki, about the only reminder someone is still breathing is food-related: the small signs in front of darkened restaurants, touting “takeout meals only.”
After restrictions are lifted, there are expected to be significant changes in people’s lives, even the way food is purchased and consumed.
Gone will be noisy, packed eateries. Health officials are saying, with social distancing still recommended, fewer people will be allowed in restaurants. Tables will be spaced farther apart.
People’s food-buying habits are also expected to change. Food distributor Rob Barreca says shoppers are more likely to be inclined now to buy locally grown food.
He says that after many people saw empty shelves in markets during COVID-19, the idea of food resiliency in Hawaii is no longer an abstraction but a real concern.
Barreca says this is speeding up the existing interest in locally produced food.
Barreca is the founder and CEO of Farm Link Hawaii, an online market that delivers locally farmed foods, meats and dairy products directly to restaurants and grocery stores as well as to individuals at pick-up hubs and their homes.
Before the pandemic, Farm Link’s primary customers were restaurant and retail markets. But with restaurants doing less business, Farm Link started pitching its service to individual shoppers to keep the farmers growing crops.
Barreca said orders to Farm Link from individual online shoppers skyrocketed from 171 orders in January and February to 2,389 in March and April.
Now Farm Link is keeping individual orders to 500 per week while it builds its capacity to meet the surge.
“What I am betting on is, during this period, a significant portion of the population now exposed to more locally farmed food and finding it delicious, will want to stick around and keep buying it when things return to normal, whenever that is,” Barreca said.
He is so confident of an expanding market for locally farmed food he is moving Farm Link into an expanded warehouse in June and has hired more staff and is leasing four additional vehicles.
He believes another change after COVID-19 will be less restaurant traffic and more of the home cooking that shut-in families have come to enjoy.
Laurie Carlson, the general manager at Kokua Country Foods, Hawaii’s oldest community food co-op, says customers are growing more food and doing more baking and cooking.
“People who hardly cooked before are realizing it is not that difficult to do,” she said. “All you need is a box of pasta cooked with whatever is in your refrigerator to make a meal, or fill a flour tortilla with food you have around to make a wrap or improvise by putting some bottled Indian sauce on a bowl of canned garbanzos.”
Carlson has seen a surge of natural food buying during the pandemic, with her store’s sales in March jumping $50,000 over the average for the previous two months.
And more locally grown produce is available now that restaurants are shuttered and not buying it.
She agrees with Barreca that the shortages of certain items — such as rice, beans and flour — have given shoppers a more immediate understanding of the fragility of Hawaii’s dependence on shipments from the continental U.S.
“This period showed the weak parts of the mainland supply system while the local farmers kept providing a steady stream of fresh food,” she said.
Another change is that some entrepreneurs are seeing the value of turning a restaurant meal into an unusual experience.
Sakara Blackwell is prohibited during the shutdown from providing sit-down service at the beachfront concession she runs in Kapiolani Park, the Barefoot Beach Café.
Now her customers can order online a shopping bag of ingredients from her by Thursday noon to take home Friday at 3 p.m. and then learn how to turn the ingredients into a meal by watching her cooking demonstration at 5 p.m. Fridays on the Barefoot Beach Cafe Facebook site or Instagram Live.
Last Friday, it was a complete Mexican dinner with beans, rice, tacos, Mexican coleslaw, guacamole and chips followed by an hour-long livestreamed musical performance from Art Kalahiki. This Friday it will be a Hawaiian barbecue dinner, with the cooking followed by a demonstration of Hawaiian head-lei making.
Another change prompted by lingering virus fears is more foods will be pitched as medicinal.
Chef Vikram Garg of Tbd restaurant is already doing that by promoting what used to be just curry on his menu as “immunity boosting.”
Garg told a reporter, “For me, it wasn’t about selling or making money but helping to give people nourishment and boost their immune systems.”
Food as medicine doesn’t sound very appetizing to me. But at least nobody here yet has suggested ingesting Lysol to fight the disease.
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.