The recipe for getting more local food into schools is set for a rewrite when the Legislature returns to work next month.

Hawaii Grown

Passed last session, House Bill 817 mandated state agencies to begin a graduated scheme to eventually source 50% of their food in state by 2050. But in the coming session, it will be reworked to focus on the biggest buyers of local food, including the Department of Education, according to Rep. Scot Matayoshi, who introduced the bill.

It’s one of several bills that the Legislature plans to take up in the 2022 session, which opens Jan. 19, that focus on historical and new issues compromising Hawaii’s food production. As the focus on local food production intensifies, civic groups and lobbyists are eager to focus on infrastructure, land regulation, biosecurity, technology and workforce development, though a full picture of what is to come has yet to be established.

Matayoshi said his revitalized bills will focus on four departments: DOE, the University of Hawaii and state hospital systems, and the Department of Public Safety. He noted that the bill would not just focus on fresh produce but all food products.

“We’re really hoping to support our food producers here,” he said.

Beefstew school lunch at Ala Wai Elementary School.
The recipe for a school lunch such as this one, at Ala Wai Elementary School, would need to have 50% Hawaii-grown produce by 2050 under Rep. Scot Matayoshi’s bill. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Ulupono Initiative, which advocates for renewable energy and local food production, has been a supporter of the bill since it was introduced.

Jesse Cooke, vice president of investments and analytics, sees the whittling of departmental responsibilities as a smart step toward ensuring greater demand and incentive for local food production.

“At the end of the day, the Department of Education is basically purchasing more food than all these departments combined,” Cooke said. “Probably double.”

Establishing steady demand for local food to ensure eventual agricultural growth has been a central focus agricultural lobbying groups have supported, and advocates have expressed frustration over the lack of local food in school meals during the course of the pandemic.

So installing robust, but not cumbersome, reporting requirements would be critical to the success of Matayoshi’s refined bill, Cooke said. And, depending on that success, it could later be taken to other departments.

Cutting food costs through programs like Da Bux that offers subsidized produce is one way Hawaii island is addressing hunger. Courtesy: The Food Basket/2018

“You want to really pick your battles and I think the main focus point should be the DOE,” Cooke said.

Other bills that have influenced local demand include the Da Bux Double Up Food Bucks program, which doubles the buying potential for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Electronic Benefit Transaction users by matching dollar-for-dollar expenses on local produce.

The program has the support of the Hawaii Food Industry Association, which represents the food and beverage industry, because it was a win-win for users and producers, according to Lauren Zirbel, its executive director.

Zirbel said eliminating a $10 per day cap on the purchase of local produce in the last session was a boon for Da Bux, but the program could have been helped further.

“We were hoping that they would increase the funding on that one,” Zirbel said.

It is unclear whether the bill will be revised in the coming session.

Feeding Agriculture

Gov. David Ige on Monday announced his budget for the coming year. In it is a suite of measures that could see Hawaii’s irrigation and water systems bolstered in response to what has been years of pleas by farming communities and organizations appealing for better upkeep of existing infrastructure.

Hawaii’s historical agricultural irrigation systems have become of increasing concern as focus on agricultural security and self-sufficiency relies upon them to feed the land. Because they date back to the plantation days, however, they need maintenance and renovation.

In 2019, the Department of Agriculture estimated it would cost approximately $167.5 million to complete all the necessary improvements and repairs, which equates to approximately $33 million per year for its five-year development plan.

Ulupono’s Cooke said the governor’s projects appeared to be tailored to water infrastructure, and would be the most significant irrigation investment in years.

It also appeared that less-explicit plans for certain areas could be in place for irrigation and water issues in the governor’s budget, such as a $10 million allocation for Royal Kunia Ag Park, he said.

Cooke was hopeful that the $3 billion in federal funding for Hawaii’s infrastructure passed by Congress in November might free up more state money for agricultural infrastructure like water systems.

Hawaii Farm Bureau, which lobbies on behalf of ranchers and farmers, is also interested in irrigation, specifically the Menehune Ditch in Waimea, Kauai, which needs urgent improvement as local taro farmers struggle to get enough water for their crops.

The Farm Bureau finalized its legislative package on Monday, and will focus on several additional bills, some old and some new, according to executive director Brian Miyamoto.

They include increasing funding for University of Hawaii research into the health of red ginger, ensuring waste disposal sites are not placed on agricultural lands, agricultural enterprises on DOA land and importation of Hawaii-appropriate technologies from overseas.

University of Hawaii extension agents such as Josh Silva, left, help farmers around the state with their productivity, pest control and general knowledge of their lands. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2021

The Farm Bureau for Kauai will also request additional UH extension staff, as it feels it needs more expert help for its membership. UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources has lost several staff over the past year, with little hiring.

“We want to make sure that the Legislature is able to fund these positions, in addition to what the college or university has already asked for,” said Miyamoto. “They are extremely important to our farmers and ranchers.”

Along with several other agricultural organizations, the Farm Bureau will again this year be supporting the transfer of agricultural lands from the Department of Land and Natural Resources to the DOA.

Miyamoto says while he supports the goals of DLNR, agricultural production and lands are best managed by those trying to promote agriculture and have the means to do so. DOA also has better leasing terms, which could naturally lead to more investment, Miyamoto said.

Agricultural Security And Future

Biosecurity has been a key issue for agriculture, with several pests taking over key sectors — from coffee to cattle — particularly coffee leaf rust, two-line spittle beetle, and several invasive mammals compromising other areas of agriculture over the past year.

The Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council will focus on four areas: agricultural land use, agricultural theft, biosecurity and pest control, and delivering Hawaiian beef to state departments, especially schools, according to the group’s executive director, Nicole Galase.

The greatest threats to cattle ranchers in Hawaii are the two-line spittle bug, an insect killing grasses cattle feed on, and ungulates such as axis deer and goats who eat the cattle’s forage.

Axis deer have proven a major issue for ranchers and farmers all around the state. Eric Nishibayashi/The Nature Conservancy

A green fee on tourists will likely return in the upcoming session. The $20 fee, which would supplement funding for environmental programs – such as biosecurity initiatives – across the state, was introduced in the 2021 session but failed to pass.

Sen. Mike Gabbard said he anticipates it appearing again and that it could be an effective way to pick up the extra cost of implementing interagency biosecurity plans to safeguard agriculture.

Gabbard said he will be supporting many of the bills in the upcoming session that the Farm Bureau is interested in, as well as those supported by Hawaii Farmers Union United.

Among HFUU’s bills are investments in the work of food hubs and investments to ensure greater soil health throughout the state. Gabbard is keen on HFUU’s Maui-based farm apprentice mentorship program, which he has introduced several times since 2017, to encourage young people to get into agriculture.

“The average age of our farmers is 61. There’s over 900,000 acres that are available for farming but we don’t have the farmers,” Gabbard said. “Farming is a noble profession. Until we change (the) negative stigma, we’re just going to be kicking the can down the road.”

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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