Fresh research reinforces that the majority of tourists to Hawaii will pay a premium to experience local fare. That could make food produced here more affordable for residents.

More than 20 Oahu hotels and restaurants committed to buying more food from local farmers Tuesday, signing onto the Oahu Good Food Program, a Honolulu initiative launched last year to wed local agriculture to tourism – Hawaii’s strongest economic driver – and help farmers increase their production in line with demand. 

The Oahu Good Food Pledge will eventually provide a picture of the demand for, and amount of local food sourced by the pledgers; mirroring state aspirations to boost demand and help farmers hone their offerings.

Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke talked down the state’s purchasing power of local produce but said it supported industry goals. (Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022)

Launched last year, the partnership between the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the county encourages large institutions to direct their spending towards supporting local economies and environmental sustainability, based on indicators from the Center for Good Food Purchasing.

Twenty-five cities or counties are part of the program nationwide

Hawaii Tourism Authority Director of Planning Caroline Anderson says the partnership with the county aims to benefit farmers and ranchers and address tourist expectations for local food.

It’s unlikely Hawaii will be able to grow enough of the requisite crops to meet all visitors’ demands for flour, rice and dairy products because it’s not viable for Hawaii’s farmers.

But they can increase their contribution.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

What’s On The Menu?

The Kahala Hotel and Restaurant signed on and hopes to integrate as much local food as sustainably possible through the program.

The ingredients in menu offerings at the Kahala hotel are 54% local, according to Kahala Vice President and General Manager Joe Ibarra, and come from 68 local suppliers. That ratio is up 22% from 2019.

Under the agreement the hotel will soon be able to see how much it is spending on local food, where the opportunities are and what is needed to increase spending.

But the realities of food production in Hawaii mean it will be challenging for farmers to supply the commercial quantities required for catering to hotels and restaurants.

Kahala has a twice-weekly seafood buffet that serves an average of 200 people meaning they need a consistent supply of vegetables and seafood that the local market might not yet be able to supply.

“My hope is that if we can get a baseline to show what we need, we can ask these vendors to increase their scale,” Ibarra said in an interview.

James Anthony digs up dryland taro on his leased state land located in Kahana Valley.
James Anthony digs up dryland taro on his leased state land located in Kahana Valley. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020)

Scale is a concern cited by the state Department of Education too, which has been told by lawmakers to up its local spending to 30% of its total food spend by 2030 — it only purchased 6.2% of its food locally in 2022.

Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke acknowledged the issues that come with local food spending at the Oahu Good Food event Tuesday when referencing the DOE’s tight deadline.

“It is barely seven years away and we have a long way to go,” Luke said. “How do we do it? With personal commitment and personal connection,” she said.

Personal commitment has not gotten Hawaii too far, seeing as the previous two governors both committed to doubling food production.

But the Good Food Purchasing Program aims to provide a baseline of information that was previously missing due to another problem: There has not been a comprehensive assessment of the state’s agricultural production since 2009.

Hungry Tourists Have Cash To Spend

A recent University of Hawaii survey found that 80% of U.S. tourists to Hawaii are willing to spend at least 10% more to get a taste of Hawaii’s local fare.

The UH survey of U.S. tourists will soon be followed by a survey of Japanese tourists, a major tourism market, and another will focus on local willingness to pay for food grown here.

UH West Oahu sustainable community food systems assistant professor Albie Miles, who helped in the surveying and research, says being able to provide the tourism industry with the evidence of tourist buying power will expedite getting more on board.

Saleh Azizi, who facilitates the Hawaii Food Hub Hui, says rather than taking food from local mouths food hubs are already selling to hotels at a higher price, ensuring they can keep prices lower for local consumers.

But Azizi is also hopeful that it will have a greater social justice impact too, following the Center for Good Food Purchasing ethos by ensuring hotels support producers who treat their workers properly.

“It’s not just, ‘oh, purchase a local pineapple’,” Azizi said. “It’s like ‘now we purchase from venues that pay people’.”

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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