When the coronavirus pandemic temporarily shuttered slews of Hawaii restaurants and hotels, some local farmers and food distributors instantly lost their client base.

Then a new kamaaina market appeared. Concerned about bare grocery store shelves, the unreliability of food imports and the health risks of shopping for food in crowds, an increasing number of local families started looking for convenient, contact-less ways to access quality Hawaii-grown ingredients to make meals at home.

On the Big Island, hundreds of families found a solution in the food hub Adaptations, which lost most of its major tourism-based wholesale clients during the first year of the pandemic but discovered a burgeoning business model in direct-to-consumer sales.

Now that the travel restrictions that zapped Hawaii’s tourism industry have eased, Adaptations owner Maureen Datta said the restaurants and resorts that previously powered the food hub have returned — and they’re already back to buying fresh, locally grown ingredients at pre-pandemic rates.

But Datta said that doesn’t mean the food hub has plans to abandon its newly cultivated kamaaina customer base. In fact, she said she wants to prioritize it.

Interest in the CSA, or community supported agriculture program at Adaptations food hub on the Big Island increased fourfold during the pandemic. Even now as life edges back toward normalcy, Adaptations owner Maureen Datta said people are not necessarily reverting back to their old grocery shopping routines. Courtesy: Rico Granger/2021

“When the resorts shut down, a number of them took nine months to pay me,” said Datta, whose food hub buys, markets and sells local ingredients to restaurants, schools, small businesses and families, allowing local farmers to concentrate on farming.

“If they just left me holding the bag after I’ve done all the work to get them their produce, then that left a bad taste in my mouth,” she said. “I don’t forget that quickly.”

In the first six weeks in the pandemic, the customer base for the food hub’s community supported agriculture program quadrupled to nearly 500 families. Today most of these customers remain and new customers are signing up almost every day.

To keep up with the added capacity, Datta said she’s been buying from more Big Island growers and importing produce from other food hubs across the state. So far, she said she’s accessing enough food to service both her tourism-based and resident-based clients.

“We kind of changed everything to, ‘Our community comes first.’” — Kea Keolanui, Hawaii Eco-Experiences

But if she finds herself facing a shortage of produce in the future, Datta said she plans to take care of local families first.

“The neat thing about food hubs is we’re really community-minded,” Datta said. “The first thought is not necessarily about how to get the best dollar that we can get. It’s oftentimes, ‘How do we continue to nurture the relationships in the community that are going to sustain us into the future?’”

But it will take more than goodwill to perpetuate any of the positive pandemic-influenced changes to the local food system, said Bruce Mathews, dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management at the University of Hawaii Hilo.

“There may be exceptions, but on a large scale, the loyalty to the bottom line is always the most pervasive,” Mathews said.

Supermarket food prices in the U.S. rose 3.5% in 2020 — 75% higher than the 20-year average, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

KCC Farmers Market vegetables. 18 april 2017
Food hubs in Hawaii played an important role during the pandemic in increasing access to local food and supporting local farmers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

The reasons behind the dramatic jump in food prices are numerous but can generally be traced back to the pandemic’s effect on supply chains, labor and changing consumer habits. There was an abrupt increase in demand for grocery store purchases when stay-at-home orders forced restaurants and schools to close and the national food system could not adapt fast enough.

In 2021, prices continue to climb, although at a much slower clip. The USDA predicts supermarket food prices will increase this year by 1% to 2%.

In Hawaii, Chef Thomas Naylor of Oahu’s Ke Nui Kitchen said the hike in food costs has had the positive effect of eroding at least some of the financial incentive to buy cheaper food imports over the generally more expensive local products.

“It’s leveling the playing field,” he said. “Usually your local product is nicer but often it’s more expensive. That may still be the case, but the gap is starting to close.”

But local food prices are increasing, too. This is most evident with seafood, as the price of some locally caught fish has about doubled, according to Naylor.

“During the pandemic we had guys that were just sitting on so much product that they were like, ‘We’ll give it to you for a quarter of the price!’” Naylor explained. “There was such an emphasis on recovery and on lowering the price for everybody just to make sure that people were getting fed.”

“But I think at this stage of the game, people know that the money is out there and people are in position to spend again,” he said.

Mathews said only time will tell whether the changes to Hawaii’s local food system will stick.

“I think we’re going to see some legacy of COVID-19 where people want to access food products in the local market for a while,” Mathews said.

As the pandemic recovery edges closer to normalcy, Mathews predicts many local farmers and food distributors might shift their focus back to servicing the tourism sector.

Big Island farmer Christy Ogg showcases her ginger crop, which she wholesales to the food hub Adaptations for distribution to customers and, increasingly, directly to local families. Courtesy: Maureen Datta/2021

Although resorts, restaurants and farmer’s markets have reopened, there has only been a slight slump in interest in the Adaptations food hub’s CSA program that distributes customized boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables to local families, according to Datta.

The food hub, she said, continues to regularly service about 450 families — down from about 500 families at the height of the pandemic but substantially higher than the 125 families that used the service before the pandemic.

In her opinion, the CSA business model that exploded a year ago is poised to outlast the pandemic.

The makers of Kau Kau Box, an Oahu meal service born of the pandemic that offers a collection of chef-prepared meals mainly sourced with local ingredients, similarly report just a modest drop-off in consumer interest during the pandemic recovery period.

With this sustained momentum, Madeleine Noa, general manager of the year-old meal service, said Kau Kau Box now plans to expand to the neighbor islands.

“The need for something like this definitely is still there, but it’s also turned into a want,” she said.

Kea Keolanui, part-owner of the Hilo-based farm tour company Hawaii Eco-Experiences, said the food hub that the company established in the absence of tourism last year will continue even though the tourists — and their dollars — are back.

Selling produce directly to local families is not nearly as profitable as selling tour tickets to visitors. But, for Keolanui, the pandemic underscored the fragility of running a business so reliant on the fickle visitor industry.

Last year the company completely rewrote its business model, going so far as to rip the seats out of a tour van to accommodate deliveries of food pallets to residents.

“We kind of changed everything to, ‘Our community comes first,’” Keolanui said. “In my mind, our new CSA program comes before the tours, even though the tours make the money and we just sort of break even on the CSA program.”

Tours at Hawaii Eco-Experiences relaunched in March. But in a testament to a commitment to serving the local community, the company reduced the number of tours it offers on Mondays and Tuesdays so it can divert the use of its vans to distribute CSA boxes to local families.

“No one is making big bucks off of this,” Keolanui said. “It’s pretty much a community service. But we are committed to continuing it because tourism is truly unpredictable.”

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