5 Ways To Help Hawaii Farmers In 2022 - Honolulu Civil Beat

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The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.

It’s been a pretty terrible two years for farmers and low-income families in Hawaii — two groups that were already struggling to get by before the pandemic hit.

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Fluctuations in tourism and the local economy have hit a lot of people hard, whether they grew food for tourists or worked in the restaurants that dished it up for them. Grocery prices have skyrocketed. So has the cost of transporting produce to market.

In the midst of all this bad news though, there’s one bright spot worth pointing out: access to affordable, fresh produce for low-income families in the state has soared through a program called DA BUX.

In 2019, low-income families receiving food stamp benefits could get additional help buying produce at 27 locations in the state through DA BUX, a program that doubles the value of government food assistance when it’s used to purchase locally grown food. That number has since swelled to 98 locations and sales through the program grew 167% in 2020. Sales are expected to grow 400% by 2023.

A major influx in federal and philanthropic funding for the program this year means that Hawaii Food Basket, which administers the program, has also been able to remove the $20 a day spending cap on produce that was previously in place for families and also work on increasing access to the program in rural areas. At the same time, the program provides a critical influx of cash for local farmers.

Over the last year, Civil Beat has placed a special focus on agriculture through our series “Hawaii Grown.” The project has revealed deep systemic issues in Hawaii that make it harder for us to break our dependence on imported food — from a lack of affordable land to growing challenges from climate change and poorly managed state efforts.

But as the success of DA BUX in the last two years has shown, there’s a lot that can be done to increase access to fresh food in Hawaii with the right kind of effort and funding.

Here are five things that Hawaii can do right now to support farmers and improve access to affordable, locally grown food.

Da Bux signs at Times Supermarket, King Street.
The DA BUX program, which helps low-income families expand their food budgets if they buy locally grown food, has been a huge success. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Make DA BUX A Permanent Part Of State-Run Benefits

There’s a reason many agriculture experts list DA BUX and similar programs in other states as the best way to have an immediate impact on local families and farmers.

Giving low-income families financial support to buy local produce addresses public health and food security, while also pumping money into the local agricultural economy, points out Albie Miles, an assistant professor of sustainable community food systems at the University of Hawaii West Oahu.

“It’s the biggest bang for the buck,” Miles said.

Hawaii Grown

DA BUX program has seen astounding growth in the last two years. The program has received $10.2 million in funding — its budget in 2019 was just $1.9 million  — mostly through a combination of federal grants and matching donations from local organizations.

The program has three years to spend those funds, says Kristin Frost Albrecht, executive director of Hawaii Food Basket.

But Albrecht anticipates using the money on food purchases in closer to two years given the high demand. To make sure the funding doesn’t run out too fast, the organization is limiting the number of retailers that can sign up to participate.

While the program is incredibly well-funded at the moment, now is the time to plan for its long-term success.

DA BUX lost out on an additional $3.3 million in federal funding this year because it would have had to come up with a matching grant locally, something it did not anticipate being able to do in the short period of time it was given (local philanthropic foundations already matched $2.6 million in federal funding for the program this year.)

Having state funds allocated each year for the program would increase its ability to bring in federal grants, Albrecht says. Gov. David Ige’s office funneled $500,000 in federal coronavirus relief funds to the program this year but pre-pandemic the state’s contribution was less than $50,000 for 2019.

The best possible outcome for DA BUX, Albrecht said, would be to institutionalize the program and make it a part of the federally funded and state-run Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Anything that the state government can do to advocate for federal funding or allocate reliable state funding for the program would help, Albrecht said.

“This can really change the way food security looks and how much food is produced in the state,” Albrecht said.

Improve Data Collection

A lettuce farmer on the Big Island has different challenges from those of a papaya farmer on Oahu. One thing they have in common, though, is a need for better data from the state.

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s data and analysis branch was gutted during the great recession. The department tried to beef up its data gathering and analysis team with additional hires in 2019, but it still has nowhere near the capacity it did in years past. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service is in the same situation.

The result is that farmers are lacking critical information about state land use, what crops they should be planting, how much to charge for those crops, and what a reasonable cost is for shipping or storage. Some farmers, like Max Bowman on the Big Island, use national statistics in lieu of the regular market reports that HDOA used to produce. But, as Bowman told us earlier this year, national data isn’t always applicable to Hawaii, which means he’s largely guessing.

The state has a lot of tough budget decisions to make, but if Ige is serious about bolstering local food production, restoring the data analysis team at the ag department is a critical step.

Increase Support For Local Food Hubs

Most of Hawaii’s farms are small, a data point that makes sense given the scarcity of land in the islands.

But smaller farms have a much harder time making a profit and getting their product into larger stores that typically want to order in bulk. That’s where food hubs come in.

Food hubs (typically nonprofit organizations or cooperatives) act as a distribution network. They buy, market and sell locally grown food to grocery stores, restaurants, food banks, and directly to consumers, letting farmers spend more time focusing on what they know best: farming.

What food hubs are doing is essentially building a local food infrastructure system in the state, says Saleh Azizi of Kahumana Farm Hub in Waianae.

It’s an effort worth investing in.

The pandemic has brought about increased demand for local food, and many of the hubs don’t have the infrastructure needed to keep up with the growing demand. Hubs need funding for upgrading infrastructure like produce washing stations and refrigeration. Others need help with marketing, increasing warehouse space, or growing their value-added products.

Interest in the CSA program at Adaptations food hub on the Big Island increased fourfold during the pandemic. Courtesy: Rico Granger/2021

A bill that would have allocated state funding to support food hubs died in the Legislature earlier this year. The Food Hub Hui, a group of 14 food hubs across the state that wrote the legislation, is working on a new version of the bill.

The state would be wise to give the bill careful consideration in the next legislative session, given the significant impact that the food hub model can have on Hawaii’s agriculture sector.

Eat More Ulu

While most efforts to reduce our dependence on imported food rely on state lawmakers or nonprofits, there’s one thing that individuals can do: change what they eat.

Fresh fruits and vegetables make up a small portion of most of our diets. The bulk of our calories usually comes from staple crops like wheat and rice. Without tremendous subsidies, Hawaii is unlikely to produce significant amounts of either — particularly not in the processed form that most people consume.

But there are plenty of delicious alternatives that are well-suited for production in the islands.

Taro (kalo), banana (maia), breadfruit (ulu), papaya (mikana) and sweet potato (uala) are just some of the local staple crops that can be swapped for pasta and bread. And they work great in local recipes like ulu adobo, banana poi bread, and kalo flatbread.

Buying more ulu or sweet potatoes as an individual isn’t going to make a dent in the amount of food we import to the state, but consumer pressure is a very real thing. When enough people — along with large institutions like schools and hospitals — start purchasing locally-grown staples, that can drive changes in the market.

Strengthen The Extension Agent Program

There’s a lot of work that the University of Hawaii does to support agriculture in Hawaii, but one of the most important services for farmers is the extension program.

Students gather around the UH Waimanalo Farm instructor in a lesson held in the field.
Students gather around the UH Waimanalo Farm instructor in a lesson held in the field. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

University employees known as extension agents act as a bridge between researchers and farmers. They can help farmers figure out new crops to grow, work to resolve challenges with soil or pests and figure out why some crops aren’t thriving.

But the extension agent program is half the size it was three decades ago, says Bruce Mathews,  the dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management and a professor of soil science at UH Hilo.

Farmers say they see fewer extension agents out in the field than they did even a few years ago. And University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources lost 60 positions — 20% of its staff — this year.

At the same time, there’s more demand because of ongoing efforts to diversify agriculture after generations of Hawaii being dominated by large monocrop plantations.

It’s time to turn that around.

If Hawaii wants to have more affordable local food — or have any hope of meeting the farming challenges of the coming century — it needs to make a more serious investment in farmers today.

That means not just investments in critical infrastructure like water systems, but also supporting a robust extension program that helps farmers stay up to date with technology, tackle challenges from pests and climate change, and have a better chance of making money from their crops by helping farmers gain much-needed business skills.

“We know the state’s not in great financial shape right now, but we really need an action plan where we identify critical needs and get the Legislature to fund them,” Matthews said.

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About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.

Latest Comments (0)

The other elephant in the room is Agricultural theft. The authorities need to take it seriously and prosecute the offenders. 

PacificPDog · 1 year ago

Yes, eat more `ulu!   Every time it appears in the open market Waiau Park I buy some.I look forward to the day when my two young 'ulu trees produce.

DanlCSmith · 1 year ago

Buy local as much as possible and especially in grocery stores. Safeway should offer more. Costco, Foodland and Times offer same. 

Concernedtaxpayer · 1 year ago

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