Vince and Gabbi Kawasaki Wenke tied the knot in February, squeaking in a wedding celebration just weeks before life in the islands lost all sense of normalcy. 

A first test of marriage arrived quickly: When COVID-19 invaded Hawaii in March, operations halted at the couple’s paint and wood restoration business.

With half their income stilled by the pandemic, the newlyweds built a raised garden bed and planted mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, herbs and green beans. The idea was to cut down on living expenses by taking a crack at subsistence gardening. 

By mid-May, the Hawaii Kai couple’s garden had grown to 400 square feet — about the size of their house.

Gabbi Kawasaki Wenke (left) and Vince Wenke care for a tomato plant in their home garden on Tuesday, July 15, 2020. The couple started their garden when the pandemic began with the intention of growing food to feed themselves and enough to trade with others on social media. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat), tomato, COVID-19, coronavirus, food security, sustainability, gardening, food, grow
With little prior experience, Vince and Gabbi Kawasaki Wenke have managed to cultivate an abundance of vegetables and herbs, some of which they swap for other foods with friends, neighbors and strangers they meet on social media. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

As Hawaii residents scramble to ride out the financial storm of COVID-19, a staggering number of people now find themselves facing food insecurity.

As a result, many residents are acquiring food differently — trading and bartering for groceries, fishing or hunting more, planting gardens, scoring food giveaways from farms and buying produce from roadside tents or on Instagram and Facebook Marketplace.

The pandemic is also changing how farmers sell — and in some cases give away — the fruits of their labor.

With a backyard of rich volcanic soil and a year-round growing season, Vince and Gabbi Kawasaki Wenke have quartered their grocery bill by embracing new food sources.

The novice gardeners smartly planted more food than they could eat. An abundance of arugula and baby kale afforded them an opportunity to swap with a neighbor for a heaping pile of ong choy, also known as water spinach, and a couple handfuls of lychee. 

The couple used some ong choy to make a tofu stir fry. They swapped another portion of the mild, crunchy greens for two loaves of bread baked by a woman they found on Facebook Marketplace. The last of the ong choy went to a neighbor in exchange for carrots, beets and goat cheese.

The couple has since used their produce surplus to attain a great many grocery items, including corned beef, yellow mustard, Cheerios, fresh eggs, frozen chicken and parsley. They’ve created a new Instagram account devoted to facilitating these food swaps.

“It’s kind of exhilarating to be able to fill my house with food from my garden,” said Gabbi Kawasaki Wenke. 

Before the pandemic, the couple’s monthly food bill was about $850. By June, they were spending $200 per month on gardening supplies and a few grocery items — beer, tofu and kombucha. 

‘Survival Mode’

People say they are changing their eating habits for different reasons.

The pandemic forced some people to seriously consider what might happen if the cargo ships and planes that deliver food supplies to the islands stopped coming. 

Nearly 2,500 miles from the nearest land mass, Hawaii spends up to $3 billion a year importing about 90% of its food. This unsettling fact, coupled with wild economic uncertainty unleashed by the pandemic, has placed new emphasis on supporting local agriculture.

Professional food growers, suffering second-hand from the reeling hotel and restaurant industries, are facing a different kind of pressure to profit from yields produced for a market that no longer exists today.

“The food situation is definitely much more precarious than people think right now,” said Jesse Cooke, vice president of investments and analytics at the Ulupono Initiative. “You might not hear about (farmers) going bankrupt and going out of business, but they’ve definitely cut back. There’s no reason for them to stay at the same level of production because there’s not enough business. And it’ll be that way for a while.”

Farmers are reacting by tapping into new revenue streams, such as farm-to-doorstep delivery services like Farm Link Hawaii and Oahu Fresh. But none of these avenues comes close to replacing the market share lost to the all-but-shuttered tourism industry.

And many people just don’t have the money to buy from local farmers, no matter how good the product or price.

Hanalei Colleado
Hanalei Colleado of Ho‘omana Farms on Maui has been giving away sweet potatoes that he would normally feed his pigs. Courtesy: Hanalei Colleado

A fifth of Hawaii households said they do not have enough food at least some of the time, according to U.S. census data collected during the first week in July. More than half of all households surveyed said they were either not confident at all or only somewhat confident in their ability to afford food through early August.

“I’m in survival mode,” said Jansen Estrada, a 34-year-old Maui native who returned home last month after eight years on the mainland.

COVID-19 has trapped Estrada in a state of limbo. He figures it could be a while before he can use his new master’s degree in athletic training to generate an income.

So he was quick to get himself to Keopuolani Pavillion last Thursday where volunteers distributed 20,000 pounds of free purple sweet potatoes.

Estrada said his share of potatoes will last him several weeks. 

The origin of the purple sweet potato giveaway exemplifies how local food producers are adjusting to the COVID-19 economy, in some cases giving away food for free because the market has been so badly rocked.

The pandemic zapped Maui pig farmer Hanalei Colleado’s biggest client, Old Lahaina Luau. So he started selling his butchered hogs directly to consumers through a new website. 

But the pork wasn’t selling. So Colleado, of Ho‘omana Farms, began dropping off hundreds of dollars worth of pork to families he knew that could no longer afford groceries.

“This looks like a business but the reality is I have a heart for our people more than anything,” he said.

A government buy-back program eventually allowed Colleado to recover a diminished profit from his piggery.

But there was another problem: Colleado didn’t feel right feeding his hogs their regular diet of purple sweet potatoes when there were so many people financially struggling.

So Colleado switched his pigs’ diets to grain so he could start giving his weekly, 10-ton supply of purple sweet potatoes away. Grown by Maui’s Best, the potatoes that Colleado gets for free are perfectly delicious and nutritious but too small or oddly shaped to sell at a market.

An Alternative Economy For Trying Times

John Kealoha Garcia figures it was divine timing that his mobile app Exchange Ave launched in the throes of a pandemic.

A social networking platform, Exchange App has many goals. One of them is restoring food sovereignty to the people of Hawaii by allowing users to barter or trade for goods and services with other users who live nearby.

“The timing makes it more urgent because people are definitely looking at their resources differently,” said Garcia, a 36-year-old creative director who lives in Kaimuki. “So this is kind of a sweet opportunity to offer people an alternative economy that doesn’t require you to have anything other than a desire to give.”

John Kealoha Garcia waters plants in his "pop-up" urban garden where he grows food to trade within the island community, in Kaimuki, HI, Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Garcia is inspired to grow and educate others about urban gardening and has founded an app platform called ExchangeAve, that allows people all over Hawaii to barter foods. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
John Kealoha Garcia is growing food to fuel trades on his new mobile app Exchange Ave, which creates an alternative economy for people to barter goods and services. Garcia said the produce he’s growing is as important as the technology powering the platform. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

Exchange Ave was created with funding from The Purple Prize, a project of the Purple Mai‘a Foundation. But there’s a lot more to the app than technology.

What’s fueling many of the initial exchanges on the platform is a 255-square foot garden planted with 60 varieties of herbs, fruit and vegetables. Garcia said the yields from his garden feed not only the platform but seven neighboring families. He also hopes it inspires people to boost their own self-sufficiency through community gardening.

“One of things that we saw during the pandemic was a shortage of things like soil and seedlings,” Garcia said. “And so Exchange Ave really took up for people looking for that stuff. That’s something that I’m really proud of and that’s an example of the kinds of connections that we’re building up.”

The app is still in its infancy. Garcia said he hopes to find a way to turn the platform into a business. But for now he’s pleased to offer people a way to share resources and connect socially amid so much chaos and financial upheaval.

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