A bright spot in the COVID-19 pandemic has been how the virus catapulted Hawaii food hubs to popularity.
Now food hubs statewide are collaborating to help each other grow successfully, sharing resources, advice, gripes, grant money opportunities and, of course, food. They’re trying to build capacity to meet the growing demands of businesses, institutions and families that want customized orders of locally grown food.
“It’s basically like a support group for food hubs,” said Saleh Azizi of Kahumana Farm Hub in Waianae.
Food hubs are distribution networks that buy, market and sell local ingredients to grocers, schools, food banks, small businesses and families, while allowing local farmers to concentrate on farming.
Although state lawmakers deferred a bill championed by the Food Hub Hui that would have provided state funding to develop new food hubs or expand existing ones, several hui members say they are let down but not deterred. The legislative process has helped fortify their relationships with one another, boosting their successes as individual hubs and collectively as an alternative food distribution system that does not deal in food imports.
“During COVID, that connectivity that we had between our food hubs was such that I could get avocados through the Adaptations food hub in Kona if I didn’t have enough available to me in Waianae, or I could order something else I might need from the food hub on Kauai,” Azizi said.
Collectively, the 14-member Food Hub Hui supports approximately 1,100 Hawaii farmers across the island chain, Azizi said.
This includes both professional growers and backyard hobbyists.
But hui members say more funding is needed to support food hubs as the demand for their services is greater than ever. In 2020, for example, Kahumana Farm Hub in Waianae distributed about 800,000 pounds of local food — a four-fold increase from 2019.
“Almost all of us need funding for infrastructure,” said Megan Fox, who guided the launch of a food hub on Kauai late last year as a project of the nonprofit organization Malama Kauai. “Whether we’re just starting up or we’ve been operating for years, we’re all growing a lot and we all need to scale up to meet the demand.”
Food hubs also need to grow their capacity to help educate consumers that eating more local food isn’t necessarily costlier, Fox said.
“I hear a lot of times that local food costs more and that can turn off a lot of people on a budget,” Fox said.
“There are bougie farmers markets where a single dragonfruit costs $7,” she said. “But you can get a bag of produce for $25 from (our food hub) — and with Da Bux (vouchers) it’s $12.50. There’s no way you can go to a grocery store and get that amount of produce for that little money.”
And since some consumers don’t have the time or savvy to make a meal from a bag of raw ingredients, Fox said food hubs also need more financial support to transform their crops into products like taro chips, sandwich spreads and salad dressings.
Hawaii’s food hubs connect with a diverse group of food growers and consumers.
On Kauai, where the nonprofit organization Malama Kauai launched a food hub less than a year ago to improve access to nutritious, locally grown food, nearly 60% of customers are families that depend on some form of government food assistance, according to Fox, Malama Kauai’s CEO.
Part of the fledgling food hub’s mission is to help locals experiencing food insecurity to eat well while supporting local growers, she said. But this summer it plans to sign up commercial customers, as well.
In Waianae, Kahumana Farm Hub’s main customer is a local food bank. The food hub supports traditional farmers, but it also routinely makes one-off purchases from backyard growers who find they have too much soursop or breadfruit to eat. This is food that otherwise would spoil, according to Azizi.
“It creates an incentive for people to take care of their trees,” Azizi said. “I’ve had everything from a wealthy person to a homeless person sell produce to (the food hub). It’s really just about the quality of the food. I personally am not trying to create more barriers than that.”
In 2020, the Waianae food hub sold close to 30,000 pounds of dragonfruit, Azizi said. Half came from one farmer, the other half from about 50 farmers, he said.
In this way, joining a food hub allows even novice farmers to get their crops on hospital lunch plates or the shelves of Whole Foods. And it helps the smallest growers compete with economies of scale by sidestepping barriers from major retail customers that require large and consistent quantities of food.
“The food hub is really there for farmers to have a one-stop shop to offload all of their harvest and to not have to go to multiple buyers and negotiate prices,” Azizi said. “It’s to eliminate the need for every farmer and store to have to make a connection with one another. If you turn to the food hub instead, you have access to 200 farmers that you can support with your purchases.”
Long before the term was coined, Maureen Datta launched a food hub in 1990 as an extension of her South Kona herb and produce farm.
The enterprise grew from a desire to meet the demand of restaurants wanting to purchase fresh, quality ingredients grown in Hawaii soil. She enlisted friends to grow different varieties of produce that she bundled with her own harvest to sell and distribute directly to chefs at high-end resorts.
As the food hub added new buyers — grocers, schools, breweries, bakeries, a chocolate shop — it grew from a collaborative of three core farmers on the Big Island to more than 100 different farmers and gardeners statewide.
“When we say, ‘food hub,’ now people know what it is we’re talking about.” — Maureen Datta, Big Island farmer
The food hub also includes a CSA program that regularly distributes customized boxes of local fruits and vegetables to local families — a service that gained traction during the pandemic, when some people have felt safer buying food from a contact-less delivery or pickup service than a grocery store.
Over six weeks at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the food hub’s CSA program customer base ballooned from about 125 families to 475.
When the virus shut down many farmers markets, restaurants and hotels, more farmers joined the food hub, increasing the supply to meet a surging demand.
“I think it’s one of those silver linings of COVID where folks found there is a functional local food system that is pleasurable to work with, it’s convenient and it’s filled with variety and it’s 100% fresh and local,” said Datta, who has been cultivating crops like cinnamon, coffee, avocados and edible flowers on her family’s 7-acre certified organic farm Adaptations since 1979.
“I don’t see people going back,” she said. “Every day we see new families signing up.”
Although the food hub legislation failed, Datta said it helped publicly spotlight the local agriculture sector’s resiliency.
“It did enable us to get our message out and to become more of a household word so, when we say, ‘food hub,’ now people know what it is we’re talking about,” Datta said. “The state of Hawaii is an enormous market that is just sitting there buying processed mainland goods and it would be beneficial to our population if the state were to turn to the region to produce what we need — and food hubs are an example of that.”
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