Hawaii’s Food System Is Broken. Now Is The Time To Fix It
Artwork: Kalany Omengkar

In June of 2020, three months after rumors of a coronavirus-induced food shortage caused waves of panic buying across Hawaii, Kualoa Ranch opened up a small food market on the Windward coast of Oahu in a building that until recently had served as a buffet hall for tourists.

Hawaii GrownThe ranch — which has been a working cattle ranch for more than a century but is best known for its zipline tours and as a backdrop on films like Jurassic Park — now hosts a locavore’s dream.

In the sparsely decorated building, shoppers can find ripe papayas picked in the last 24 hours nestled above stacks of purple sweet potatoes. There are coolers filled with microgreens, eggs, local beef and sausages made from pigs that have spent their short lives in a remarkably clean open-air piggery snacking on organic produce and soaking up the salt-kissed air.

The pandemic has been difficult for local farmers, many of whom relied on contracts with hotels and high-end restaurants catering to tourists. But it’s also provided an unexpected boon to people living in Hawaii who want to eat food grown in the islands.

Johnathan Ferro inspects a carambola, also known as starfruit, at the Kualoa Ranch market. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2021

Farms that previously fed tourists have been participating in food delivery programs, selling their produce to local food banks and finding creative ways to get their harvest onto local tables.

Diving Deep Into Agriculture

When tourists return in full force, some farmers may want to pivot back to selling to restaurants and hotels where they might be able to get more stable contracts or higher prices. If people in Hawaii want to be able to eat affordable local food, there needs to be a major transformation of Hawaii’s food system — from how the state supports farmers to the avenues available for small farmers to sell their products.

People have focused for decades on how dependent Hawaii is on imported food — an estimated 85% of what we eat is shipped in from the mainland — and how vulnerable that makes us should a disaster keep ships and airplanes from bringing supplies into the state. Far less attention is paid to this uncomfortable truth: It’s nearly impossible to make a living in Hawaii on farming alone.

Kualoa Ranch’s agricultural efforts are not — or at least not yet — a money-making endeavor. The ranch grows 60 kinds of fruits and vegetables as part of its broader efforts to be good stewards of the land, says Taylor Kellerman, director of diversified agriculture at the ranch. These farming efforts are subsidized by the tourism side of the ranch.

Taylor Kellerman is the director of diversified agriculture and land stewardship at Kualoa Ranch in Kaneohe. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2021

Without as many tourists coming for tours, the ranch has had to furlough about a quarter of its agricultural staff. Kellerman and his remaining workers have been putting in 12-hour days for months to harvest the lilikoi and turmeric and limes that fill the produce bins at the market, to keep the pigs and chickens fed and make sure the papaya orchards are producing.

If the pandemic has intensified interest in making Hawaii more food independent, it’s also magnified why that is such a challenge.

Hawaii has more than 7,000 farms, but 90% of those farms are small niche growers who produce a small percentage of the state’s agricultural sales, says Nicholas Comerford, dean of the University of Hawaii Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. The bulk of local produce consumed by people in Hawaii comes from roughly 100 farms that are big enough to sell to grocery stores.

“That’s not a great place to start from,” Comerford says.

Hawaii has fertile land and a year-round growing season. But land is expensive to buy and affordable long-term leases are difficult to come by. Fertilizer is expensive to import. Pests and diseases are a constant challenge. Labor is expensive. Housing for farmers and farm workers is scarce. Hawaii lacks the infrastructure to process a lot of the food people eat. The state is behind in technology and training programs and distribution systems.

People say they want to buy local, but in a state where people are burdened with some of the highest costs of living in the nation, most people opt for the cheapest option. And that is often not what is grown in Hawaii.

There is some reason to hope that things could change. The pandemic has put a renewed focus on food security. Groups across the agricultural sector are teaming up more and more. More people are looking at how to start their own gardens. Food banks are finding new sources of local food.

“I think there is actually a thriving agricultural renaissance happening,” says Kristin Frost Albrecht, executive director of Hawaii Food Basket.

How Self-Sufficient Can We Really Be?

The pandemic has gotten everyone talking about food sustainability, but there are different views on what sustainability means. One view focuses mainly on how long Hawaii could survive on its own if a disaster cut us off from outside supply chains. The other is more about the environmental and cultural impacts of growing our own food.

From the self-sufficiency standpoint, Hawaii’s situation is fairly grim.

The U.S. military, sometime before WWII, tried to figure out how much food an island nation or state would have to produce to survive a lengthy disruption to shipping routes, says Bruce Mathews, a professor of soil science at the University of Hawaii Hilo.

Researchers figured that an island needed to be growing at least 50% of its staple crops — foods like rice, ulu, potatoes, wheat — in order to be self-sufficient if disaster struck.

The last time Hawaii produced at least half of its own food was in the 1960s, just after statehood.

Young Brothers Shipping Containers Preparedness3.
Hawaii is highly dependent on imported food. Growing more staple foods in Hawaii will help buffer the islands from any disruption to the state’s supply line. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Before the arrival of westerners, Hawaii had an extensive and diversified agricultural system. That sustainable framework was supplanted by an agricultural system based around large scale production of sugar and pineapple for export.

Plantation owners didn’t just export crops from Hawaii, they also started importing food to feed plantation workers — in some ways setting up a system that continues to this day, points out Noa Lincoln, assistant professor of indigenous crops and cropping systems at UH Manoa.

When the sugar industry was collapsing in the early ‘90s, the state created the Agribusiness Development Corp. to help diversify Hawaii’s agricultural economy. Over the last three decades, the state has given the ADC nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.

But as a scathing report from the state auditor’s office pointed out earlier this month, the ADC has accomplished little. The state has never really figured out what its post-plantation agricultural system should be.

Without subsidies and other policies in place to encourage the growth of staple crops in Hawaii, the state is unlikely to reach the 50% threshold needed for food security, Mathews said.

From a purely economical standpoint, Japan, for example, should be importing all of its rice because the crop can be grown more cheaply elsewhere. But Japan has protections in place for farmers to make sure the nation has the security that comes from having its own rice paddies.

If food self-sufficiency is something we want in Hawaii, it’s something we have to be prepared to pay for, Mathews says.

The alternative is to get people in Hawaii to drastically change their diets and switch to staple crops like ulu and taro that can be grown more easily in the islands.

“We have to decolonize our palate,” says Keoni Lee, chief executive officer of Hawaii Investment Ready.

Americans have become accustomed to eating whatever food they want, whenever they want — with little thought to what is in season and where food is coming from, Lee points out. If something is out of season in North America, we buy it from South America.

Breadfruit, or ulu, is grown at Kualoa Ranch. Ulu is a staple crop that can grow easily in Hawaii, but is a long way from replacing rice and wheat on people’s tables. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2021

Few people today want to set a hard figure for what Hawaii’s food production goal should be.

In 2014, newly elected Gov. David Ige set a goal of doubling Hawaii’s food production by 2020. Four years later, with little progress to show, he changed the date for doubling food production to 2030.

Ideally, Hawaii could get to a point where the barges could stop coming and the islands would not just be OK, but be thriving, says Harmonee Williams, co-founder of the nonprofit Sust ‘aina ble Molokai.

Molokai got a sense of what it would be like to be cut from supplies earlier in the pandemic when COVID-19 cases shut down the island’s biggest grocery store for two weeks. The other grocery stores shut down for at least a few days.

Suddenly, it hit home how dependent the island was on the stores — and their suppliers, Williams said.

Williams says she knows for Molokai to get to a high degree of self-sufficiency there need to be targets along the way — but her organization isn’t there yet.

“We’ve just been trying to encourage farmers to keep growing, keep growing more,” Williams said.

Claire Sullivan of Maʻo Organic Farms says she’s not focused on a fixed target, but rather taking grounded steps that support producers in growing, raising and fishing more food locally.

“Because we’re in a space of relative deficit — of production and deficit of access,” Sullivan said, “each of those building blocks is going to help build up into that better space.”

It’s Not Just About The Farmers

Conversations about increasing food production are often focused on getting farmers and ranchers to grow more, says Kellerman. But these kinds of efforts take a village — particularly in an industry as economically fragile as Hawaii’s agricultural industry.

Making Hawaii sustainable or food independent isn’t just about having more people farming the land — though that’s a huge piece. It’s about having better technology. More places to process the food. Transportation to bring the food to market. Systems to get food from small farms into the hands of consumers.

Things are more likely to change when our food challenges are viewed as a community problem, Kellerman says. How can we help small farmers make enough money to survive? How do people get better access to good agricultural land? What kind of bulk purchasing can the state do to help incentivize production?

The state needs to look more at what it takes to make agriculture viable for both small and mid-sized producers, says Lee.

Demonstrators hold signs along Beretania Street fronting the Capitol on the opening day of the 2021 legislature.
Farmers demonstrated in front of the State Capitol on opening day of the Legislature. They want 2021 to be “the year of the farmer” and are calling on lawmakers to make more land available for small farms. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

From an economic standpoint, the state needs more large producers who can grow on a scale that will make prices more competitive with mainland farms. That means figuring out what barriers there are in the state that keep farms from expanding.

But Lee says if we just support large-scale industrial agriculture, that’s not going to be aligned with the values that we want for that second view on sustainability — the one that asks not just how much food we need to survive a disaster, but what are the environmental and social values that we want to see in our food system.

Lee, who sits on the board of Maʻo Organic Farms, says one challenge in addressing these wide-scale problems in the past has been that groups have been working in silos. The pandemic has helped put an end to that.

More and more people are coming together to discuss the challenges facing Hawaii’s food system. There’s the AgHui, a group of stakeholders from across the state that meets regularly to address both immediate and long-term issues in the food industry. Kamehameha Schools is undertaking a project mapping Hawaii’s food system — an effort that groups like the AgHui can then use to identify barriers to food security. The mapping is part of a broader effort in partnership with the Hawaii Public Health Institute that brings together a diverse group of nonprofits and state and federal agencies to look systematically at the challenges here.

“The crisis kind of forced everybody’s hand that, hey, we need to actually come together to rethink what we’re doing here,” said Albie Miles, assistant professor of sustainable community food systems at UH West Oahu.

Ultimately, the answer to Hawaii’s food challenges may lay in creating more meaningful relationships: between farmers and consumers, between government agencies and food distributors, between all the nonprofits working to address food security. And our own relationship to the land: understanding on a more fundamental level where our food comes from and what it takes to produce it.

“We have to prioritize as a society that food is important to us,” Lee said. “And then you start getting into the complicated web of, ‘How do we make that happen?’”

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.

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