Before the pandemic, Patrick Maier, owner of a 6-acre permaculture farm on Hawaii island, made an estimated $240 to $450 a week selling produce at local farmers markets and cafes. Then came the pandemic, the cafes closed, and people stopped buying as much food. 

Hawaii Grown“There was a relatively bleak period for three to six months where it seemed nobody needed anything,” Maier said. 

To help tide local producers over, Hawaii County Council Member Tim Richards created a funding program with the Hawaii Farm Bureau. The BRIDGES program collected $728,500 in private donations and county and federal funding to supply food banks, while helping support 20 livestock ranchers and 47 farmers, Hawaii Farm Bureau President Randy Cabral said in an email.

Maier said he received almost $200 some weeks through BRIDGES for his bananas. Then on December 31, the program ran out of funding and stopped making purchases. 

Now Maier says he needs to find a new buyer for his crops. 

A Need For Local Food

Throughout the pandemic, the Food Basket, a Big Island food bank, has been feeding almost six times as many individuals as it did last year, according to Executive Director Kristin Frost Albrecht.

“Now we’re serving 80,000 individuals,” Albrecht said, estimating that 85% of those people are unemployed because of the pandemic. That’s almost 40% of the population on the Big Island. 

“We had to really count on our local producers because we’re not able to get some of the food that the other islands are,” she said.

The BRIDGES program helped distribute local meat and produce to thousands of Hawaii island residents. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Each month, the BRIDGES program donated 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of local food for the Food Basket to distribute, Albrecht estimated. Altogether, she said, BRIDGES provided about 200,000 pounds of food from producers to the food bank.

In May, Hawaii County Council Member Ashley Kierkiewicz was helping to organize a meal distribution project for Puna, which she described as “needing a bit more critical support.”

“The BRIDGES Program was a really critical component to our efforts,” Kierkiewicz said. They were able to provide beef for 15,000 meal bags between May and December, she said. And with a $10 budget to provide two meals in each bag, not having to pay for beef allowed them to spend more on local produce and other pantry staples, she said. 

Albrecht said the Food Basket received its last shipment from the BRIDGES program in January. Maier says he received his last payment then too.

Every Sunday now, Maier hauls what’s ripe to the farmers market, and he’s not turning a profit. He sells some and gives some away, depending on how many people are walking around the farmers market, he said. Whatever remains, he donates to a makeshift food bank at a thrift store in Kealakekua.

Maier’s food ends its journey on “a tiny little, ugly little bookcase” that the owner of Treasure Island Thrift, Karen Kudlo, said she stationed at one end of her shop a few years ago. Lately, she said she’s had at least two dozen farmers — “A lot of faces I don’t know at all”— drop off food.

“We had more food donations than the other couple previous years. I’ve got food all over the place,” Kudlo said. About six people a day come looking for food and she hardly throws anything away.

Richards said he’s looking for funding to create a permanent version of the BRIDGES program, which stands for Big Island Rural Agricultural Industries Distribution & Growing Enterprise Strategies. 

“I think the BRIDGES program was a really good program,” Maier said.

But while the program helped him offload produce, he wants to see more financial support for intermediaries that would aggregate crops from small farmers and enable them to sell to grocery stores and bigger markets. 

I think that would be a huge thing,” he said. 

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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