Catherine Toth Fox: Buy More Locally Grown Food. It’s Worth The Extra Cost - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Visitors from the mainland are willing to pay more for locally sourced foods while on vacation in Hawaii to help the state become a more sustainable tourism destination, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Hawaii.

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That’s good news for local farmers, ranchers and other food producers, and the restaurants that promote farm-to-table menus.

But in order to make a dent in our reliance on food imports — around 90% of our food is imported — and really support the agricultural industry in the islands, the commitment to buying local has to be more impactful.

Meaning we all need to support local ag. Not just the visitors — there were a record 10 million of them in 2019 — but all of us.

The buy has to be big. It can’t be a single restaurant in Chinatown ordering small bags of microgreens from a local farmer twice a month. That’s not enough to sustain even a side hustle, let alone a full-time farm operation.

Where I see a solution — and it’s one that’s already in motion — is in restaurant chains and hotels committing to sourcing as much as possible from local food producers.

Visitors need to eat, and if they’re willing to pay a premium or higher for locally grown food — as 78% of the 454 respondents in the study published in the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Insights said they would — restaurateurs and hotels can recoup the cost of buying local goods, which tend to be more expensive than imported meats, eggs and produce sold at bulk prices.

It’s already happening. Zippy’s Restaurants, which has 24 locations on three islands and plans to open in Las Vegas in 2023, made the switch to using local beef in its popular chili, hamburger patties and spaghetti in 2010.

Today, the restaurant chain makes about 100 tons of chili alone on average a month, says Jason Higa, CEO of Zippy’s parent company FCH Enterprises. In 2020, Zippy’s used more than 70,000 pounds of ground beef a month to make its chili and meat sauces, about half of which was sourced from local ranchers. (It’s more a supply issue than demand.)

Kunia Country farms aquaponics with a view of the crops.
Kunia Country Farms, which uses aquaponics, has supplied lettuce and salad greens to Zippy’s Restaurants since 2018. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“As much as we can source something locally, we will,” Higa said. “And in almost all cases, it’s at a higher price. But I think our customers are willing to support local agriculture.”

In addition, Zippy’s sources all of its eggs — think of all those loco mocos — from Eggs Hawaii, noodles from Sun Noodle, and tomatoes and papayas from local farms. And since 2018 the restaurant chain has worked with Kunia Country Farms in central Oahu to supply all of its lettuce and salad greens. According to owner Jason Brand, the deal didn’t just increase revenue for the farm, which grows its greens aquaponically, but it provided the security of a consistent buyer and allowed the farm to expand by 45%.

It’s a win win win — for the restaurant, the farm and the person eating fresh, locally grown greens.

“We would like to buy more locally, but given the size of our operation, that’s not always operationally or financially viable, but when we can, we will choose local,” says Kevin Yim, vice president of marketing for Zippy’s. “We believe that buying locally supports local jobs and is an important part of our sourcing process.”

Hotels are buying more locally grown produce and meats, too. And since they’re feeding thousands of people a day — the vast majority of whom are visitors who expect (or are willing) to pay more for food while on vacation — these hotels are buying impactful amounts of food from local farms, which need large accounts and consistent orders to survive.

According to the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, visitors to the islands in 2021 spent $2.7 million on food and beverages, most of which was at restaurants. Food was the second-highest visitor expenditure behind lodging.

I remember touring the kitchen of The Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki in 2018 with then-executive chef Colin Hazama, who was overseeing the culinary operations for the hotel, which included two restaurants, an oceanfront bar, a bakery and a luau that ran four nights a week.

He said, at the time, the hotel was working with more than 30 local farms, using asparagus from Twin Bridge Farms in Waialua, oysters from Kualoa Ranch and Manoa lettuce from Mari’s Gardens in Mililani. About 60% of the food served at the hotel was grown in Hawaii. The shelves in one of the walk-in refrigerators were filled with boxes from Ho Farms in Kahuku, Hamakua Mushrooms in Lapahoehoe and Kawamata Farm in Kamuela. “See,” he told me then. “We really do buy from local farms.”

James Beard Award-winning chef Roy Yamaguchi has been supporting Hawaii farmers, ranchers and fishermen for decades. He buys from more than 60 different local purveyors for his 10 restaurants on four islands. You’ll see Kona kampachi on the menu at Eating House 1849, Kula mixed greens at Humble Market Kitchin (STET) and wild boar at Roy’s Waikoloa.

“In almost all cases, it’s at a higher price. But I think our customers are willing to support local agriculture.” — Jason Higa, CEO of FCH Enterprises

Robynne Maii — who took home a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest & Pacific this year, the first female chef from Hawaii to do so — has built her restaurant, Fete, around sourcing locally. She says, on any given day, about 75% to 90% of the produce she uses and 90% of meat, dairy and seafood are local. In fact, if she can’t find an ingredient, she changes the menu.

“We work really hard at it,” she says. “And it’s not easy because of supply issues. But it’s important to us.”

And it should be important to all of us.

While the state government, one of the largest buyers of food, supplying schools, prisons and hospitals, can do better at buying local — and it is; a law passed last year mandates public schools throughout the state source at least 30% of school meal ingredients from local producers by 2030 — there are other meaningful ways to support local ag.

But we can’t just leave it up to the visitors to support our local farms and restaurants. We need to do the same. Make sustainable choices when eating out. Shop at farmers markets. Sign up for a CSA.

And be OK with paying more. It’s worth it.

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.


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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

I'm with you in spirit but my pocket says 'no ken.' I have learned the way plantation workers made ends meet- home gardens. Unfortunately, all the public incentives to grow local food are for those who want to farm and sell. I wish the State will look at Oregon's support for their gardeners and expand master gardeners program here so that there is more context-based support.

Ca · 1 week ago

Even better, realize other places are more productive hence why local goods are so expensive, bulldoze the ag land, and build more apartments to address the real problem, not overpriced inefficient subsidized cottage farming hipsters but overpriced housing which hurts the poor even more.

Peter · 1 week ago

Remove taxes on groceries. That would be a great help to us all.

alohalani · 1 week ago

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