Bills To Help Return Hawaii To A More Resilient Food System - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Taylor Kaili McKenzie

Taylor Kaili McKenzie is a Native Hawaiian scholar who grew up on Oahu and attended Seattle University for her B.A. in environmental studies and women, gender, and sexuality studies. She is now at the School for the Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan and is pursuing an M.S. in Environmental Justice.

The biggest threat to food sovereignty is the current dependence on importation.

This is a call to action: While we were learning how to live in a world with a new respiratory virus, we spent the time imagining what could be.

The issues that were identified during this time of upheaval are still there — issues of dependency on imports, foreign ownership of ancestral land, climate change and rising tides, hungry people who are kept from even having secure housing on their own land.

Just as these problems remain, so should our determination to answer them. There are four bills currently being discussed in the 2023 Hawaii State Legislative season that could help the island return to a more resilient food system.

The biggest threat to Hawaii’s food sovereignty is the current dependence on importation. By some estimates, the islands import 90% of all food consumed on the islands.

To fulfill this need, 400 containers dock in Honolulu every day bringing a yearly total of 1.1 million tons of food that is then distributed to grocery stores and restaurants across the archipelago. Based on commercial stock, there is enough food to feed the permanent residents and the average amount of tourists for five to seven days.

It takes roughly four days for a container ship to leave the closest port on the continental U.S. — meaning that if there were a disaster of large proportions, the islands would have a very tight schedule for food.

Exacerbated by the dependence on importation and a lack of food security, the state of Hawaii faces high levels of hunger. In a survey published in 2021, researchers from the University of Hawaii found that 48% of families in the state experienced some level of food insecurity.

Legislation like House Bill 1248 Relating To Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Incentives provides one potential solution to inaccessible prices of food. This legislation would ensure Hawaii’s continued participation in the national program, “Double Up Food Bucks,” which matches the amount that SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) participants spend on fresh fruits and

Three bills to help Hawaii become more food independent are alive at the Legislature. (David Croxie/Civil Beat/2023)

This effectively cuts the cost of produce in half, making nutrition accessible for struggling families and individuals. One local nonprofit, Sustʻāinable Molokai, has been particularly vocal in their support of the “Da Bux” bill — not only for how it will support food access for consumers, but also the livelihoods of local farmers and economies.

According to the Da Bux 2020-2021 Outcomes Report, every dollar that participating food retailers accept in the program, $2.10 is added to the local Hawaii economy.

The benefits of the program could be scaled up dramatically and lead to economic benefits as high as $22 million in a year. Passing this legislation would have a tremendous impact on thousands of residents’ ability to afford local produce, leading to beneficial health impacts and a stronger local economy.

‘Circular Economy’

Another one of the bills, House Bill 308 Relating To Sustainable Food Systems, would create a working group to discuss and dismantle this inequitable dependence on food from the mainland. Several groups across the island support this legislation, including the University of Hawaii System, Hawaii Tourism Authority, and the Hawaii Farmers Union United.

The legislation’s primary goal is to create a space for related parties, including a mandatory number of farmers and Native Hawaiians, to discuss how localizing agriculture can happen equitably and promote a more sustainable future. This would certainly improve communication between the various departments related to agriculture, farm labor, and education — but has few requirements for what the group should actually accomplish.

The main deliverable identified is for the group to create an “interagency food systems plan,” with recommendations on next steps to localize food systems on the island. This is a needed step, although it would be nice to see more urgency from the Legislature regarding the present and demanding issue of food insecurity on the islands of Hawaii.

Surprisingly, this legislation uses strong environmental justice terms such as “social equity and food justice” and “circular economy.” It is guided by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which seems to be a common theme with Hawaii’s sustainability initiatives, including the Aloha+ Challenge.

Given the pressing issue of climate change and its disproportionate impact on Pacific islands, centering environmental and social justice is a needed priority for policy moving forward.

The final legislation that can have a tremendous impact on the future of agriculture in Hawaii is House Bill 612 Tax Credits for Farmers. The goal of this legislation is to ensure local food production is strengthened to promote the revitalization of the economy and the financial progress of those in the agricultural field.

There are additional mentions to the public health and ecological benefits of local food production. This legislation would provide a credit for farmers based on their net farm income, with differing percentages of credit based on whether the farm makes less or more than $250,000 annually.

As this is a tax credit, it is expected to be deducted from the taxpayer’s net income tax liability. Similar to the previous legislation, this bill refers to the Aloha+ Challenge and could put pressure on them to include the financial well being of farmers as a part of their criteria within the category of “Local Food Production & Consumption.” This would be a needed change for the statewide initiative, given the economic disparities within the food system.

The Economic Policy Institute calculated the living wage in Hawai’i to be $28.45 per hour, and by some estimates, farmers in Hawaii make $20 or less per hour. The data we have is typically for legal farm workers on farms owned by big companies and does not take into account undocumented workers who are paid far less and have less legal security.

Clarifying this data to account for all farmers on the islands, especially those eligible for the tax credit, would be particularly beneficial for the success of this legislation and the future of farm labor.

Ultimately, legislation can only go so far. We, as a community of people on a fragile land source, need to come together and invest in our native food ways.

There can be no more status quo, the social and structural issues that prevent people from having secure access to affordable locally grown food and ensure the financial security of farmers. Our actions and personal involvement in our food system demonstrates the importance of legislation like those being analyzed in this article.

The 2023 legislative session will come to a close on May 4.

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About the Author

Taylor Kaili McKenzie

Taylor Kaili McKenzie is a Native Hawaiian scholar who grew up on Oahu and attended Seattle University for her B.A. in environmental studies and women, gender, and sexuality studies. She is now at the School for the Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan and is pursuing an M.S. in Environmental Justice.

Latest Comments (0)

All is well and good. But I didn't see in those bills where the cheap labor is going to come from in order to farm the land. If these were good, well paying jobs there would not be a shortage of farm help, and more people willing to take up farming. Instead of importing food, Hawaii would be importing farm laborers.

trekadmiral · 6 months ago

Buy local means paying 2 to 4 times the price of imported food prices.

davewil3 · 7 months ago

HB308 sounds like a confused pipe dream that will accomplish little at a time when we need to be maneuvering through multiple crises instead of navel gazing in the wheelhouse. One thing that could really help right away is to change zoning laws to allow commercial activity like small urban farms so that people can start growing their own food at home without worrying about the neighbors turning them in.

TenPercentForDaBigGuy · 7 months ago

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