It’s a blistering day outside, and warm even inside the Maui Food Hub warehouse in Kahului, where Autumn Ness shares the news with the crew.

Maui County locator map

Since opening its doors two years ago, the nonprofit put $1 million back into the community while serving as the middleman to sell, package and distribute produce from dozens of local farmers to hundreds of families across the island.

“You guys, we’re not just packing groceries here,” Ness tells the team of a half dozen people, gathered around her in the center of the warehouse. “We’re building a system, and it’s really helping the people that are making our food.”

Ness, and anyone else who works in the food industry on Maui, will tell you that the community’s current system is desperately in need of improvement. Up to 90% of everything eaten on Maui is imported. In a community with astronomically high land costs, farmers wrestle to secure enough acreage — and also a steady supply of water.

A photograph of a Maui Food Hub worker putting together weekly produce bags
Maui Food Hub worker putting together weekly produce bags. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

That struggle is carried over to consumers. When Maui families call 211, the service that directs people to social services, the No. 1 reason isn’t the need for medical care, utility assistance or even rental assistance in a place that’s experiencing a dire shortage of affordable housing.

It’s because they need help buying food, according to 211 data.

  • 'Struggling To Get By' Special Series

“You can’t really feed your way out of this problem — or provide free meals out of the actual problem,” said Nicholas Winfrey, president of Maui United Way, which helps run the 211 directory. “For us, it’s figuring out, what is the issue?”

The good news, Winfrey said, is that Maui’s lack of affordable local food is probably one of the community’s most solvable crises — at least on paper. The issue until now has been that the problem has seemed so big and complicated that nonprofits, farmers, residents and governments didn’t know where they should start.

“Is it a food desert issue? Is it a production issue? Is it a distribution issue? Is it a supply chain issue? A cost issue?” Winfrey said. “It’s probably going to be all of those.”

One thing that is clear: Food is really expensive on Maui. A family of four can expect to spend about $1,270 per month on groceries, while the national average is about $670, according to a recent report by a number of Hawaii nonprofits.

Across the state, it’s estimated one in every three children struggles with hunger. When children don’t have the proper nutrition, the repercussions ripple beyond that: Hungry kids have a hard time focusing in school, which causes more problems down the road.

Over the next several months, Winfrey said his team will be creating a tool based on extensive data analysis that will allow nonprofits, governments and agricultural leaders to figure out what Maui needs to produce more of its own food — and make it more affordable.

The nonprofit is working with NASA to map out what’s currently being grown on Maui and what else should be planted to feed the island’s families. Then — using other information like income data, population estimates, food costs and requests for assistance to organizations like 211, the food bank and other Maui nonprofits — United Way will build a data dashboard that will allow community leaders to see Maui families’ food and financial needs in real time.

Oko‘a Farms was among the first sellers to accept food stamps at farmers markets. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Winfrey hopes the dashboard can serve as a model to inform responses to other crises plaguing the community, such as the lack of access to medical care or affordable housing.

“Maui is a great opportunity to test a lot of innovations that go beyond the county,” Winfrey said.

The tool could also take into account other outside forces, like what happens to the island’s food supply when a ship doesn’t come in or there’s a flu outbreak. The Covid-19 pandemic threw Maui into an existential crisis, putting a sharp focus on the fragility of an economy and food system that relied on imports.

As travel and tourism shut down in 2020, Maui’s unemployment rate soared to 35%, the highest among U.S. metro areas, according to federal data. In the months that followed, the Maui Food Bank served more than 52,000 people a month — more than five times the norm before the pandemic.

But there was a silver lining. As residents lost work and sought financial assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, the assistance ended up helping not only families but farmers.

Ryan Earehart of Oko‘a Farms at his booth at the Upcountry farmers market. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

“We were doing about $5,000 a month in food stamps,” said Ryan Earehart, of Oko‘a Farms. “And now we’re doing more like $25,000 a month.”

There’s a misconception that local produce is expensive and exclusive, reserved largely for high-end restaurants and hotels because it costs so much for farmers to grow. But in recent years, a number of farmers and other food producers have pushed for ways to make their produce affordable for local families.

Earehart was among the first Maui farmers to start accepting SNAP. He also became a retailer with Da Bux, a program funded in part by government dollars, that doubles the amount families can purchase when they use their SNAP benefits to buy local produce.

“All of a sudden people are like, ‘Well, this is a no-brainer,’” Eareheart said. “‘I’ve got $250 on my food stamp card; I can go to Safeway … or I can to go to farmers market and I can get $500 worth.’”

A photo of Autumn Ness searching for produce in the Maui Food Hub's walk-in fridge.
Autumn Ness searches for produce in the Maui Food Hub’s walk-in fridge. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

That’s been the goal of the Maui Hub, too. The organization was born out of the crisis during the early stages of the pandemic, when local farmers who used to supply hotels suddenly found no one to sell to.

As soon as they opened their doors, Ness said she pushed for the organization to accept SNAP to make produce affordable to families. Two years later, about a third of the hub’s customers use food stamps, which doubles their buying power because of Da Bux. It’s a win-win for farmers and local families, Ness said.

“I want to empower people,” she continued. “You can take care of yourself, access cheap food and we can also build a system that benefits the entire community.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

Struggling To Get By” is part of our series on “Hawaii’s Changing Economy” which is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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