When the Covid-19 pandemic exposed the fragility of Hawaii residents’ access to food, the state’s food hubs stepped in to fill sudden gaps in the food supply chain.

On Oahu, Kahumana Farm Hub funneled fresh produce to the local food bank that the virus had forced some Hawaii residents to rely on for the first time in their lives.

Hundreds of families on the Big Island flocked to Adaptations food hub in South Kona for customized boxes of locally grown fruits and vegetables, finding this method of food shopping more convenient and potentially safer than a visit to the grocery store.

On Kauai, Malama Kauai’s food hub ramped up its efforts to help locals experiencing food insecurity to eat well while supporting local growers who relied on farmers markets that had been shuttered by the virus.

Although Hawaii’s food hub operators have said the pandemic has made them stronger, their soaring popularity exposed a need for more funding to grow their capacity as demand for their services shot up higher than ever.

On Tuesday, a network of a dozen leading food hubs statewide won more than a million dollars in grant money to bolster their capacity and profitability across five islands.

Interest in the community supported agriculture, or CSA 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

Announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Regional Food Systems Partnership, the grant award supports a two-year project by the Hawaii Good Food Alliance and the Hawaii Food Hub Hui to address gaps in processing, storage and transportation that plague the food system supply chain and hamper the growth of food hubs through investments in equipment upgrades, advocacy, data collection, marketing and fundraising.

Harmonee Williams, executive director of the Hawaii Good Food Alliance, emphasized that the money will help food hubs connect small and medium-sized local food producers to bigger markets, thereby improving opportunities for farmers, food security for the state and local food access for consumers.

“Every island needs a food hub for all these farmers to have a place where somebody aggregates their goods and gets them out,” she said. “But a lot of our food hubs are really young and the startup phase is hard. They’re still out there proving their worth. And we are hoping this (grant) will help them get more established.”

All told, participating food hubs have more than 2,600 wholesale buyer accounts statewide and aim to use the grant to grow that number to 9,500 accounts, in part by capitalizing on sales to resorts, hospitals and other large institutions, according to a press release.

Food hubs supported by the grant — which is comprised of nearly $830,000 in federal dollars, as well as more than $200,000 from The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation — include Malama Kauai’s Moloaa Aina Center, Sustainable Molokaiʻs Mobile Market, Kahumana Food Hub & Organic Farms, Roots Cultural Cafe and Food Hub of Kokua Kalihi Valley, Oahu Fresh, Maui Hub, Local Harvest, OK Farms, Adaptations, Hawaii Ulu Cooperative, Kohala Food Hub and The Food Basket.

These distribution networks buy, market and sell local ingredients to grocers, schools, food banks, small businesses and families, while allowing local farmers to concentrate on farming.

“What I think is really unique is that all these food hubs came together and usually people in the ag industry are so competitive with each other,” 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.

“But we’re all working together to say, ‘Hey, none of us can afford to hire a development manager on our own. Why don’t we work together?’” she said.

KCC Farmers Market vegetables. 18 april 2017
A growing number of food hubs across Hawaii are collaborating with one another. By working together, Hawaii Food Hub Hui members say they are increasing access to local food and supporting farmers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Maureen Datta, owner of the state’s longest-running food hub Adaptations, said the grant will help her keep up with growing consumer demand.

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

The grant will also help the food hub attract new customers.

“We’ve never had a budget for marketing before and this grant gives us that, so it’s really a game changer,” Datta said.

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