The importance of nutritional assistance like SNAP was apparent during a recent statewide tour.

Every five years Congress deliberates on the consequential Farm Bill, an omnibus piece of legislation covering everything from agriculture and food systems to nutrition and conservation.

Hawaii’s congressional newcomer Rep. Jill Tokuda joined the House Agriculture Committee earlier this year giving Hawaii a seat at the table as Congress decides on how to spend more than $700 billion over the next five years addressing myriad issues nationwide.

Tokuda spent last week visiting communities across Hawaii to gather information on how she might best serve the state’s interests in the drafting process.

In this interview with Civil Beat, edited for length and clarity, Tokuda spoke about how she will fight from Hawaii’s corner in Congress.

Rep. Jill Tokuda visiting a Hawaii farm while on tour across Hawaii, where she was canvassing Hawaii to find out its agricultural and food priorities.
Rep. Jill Tokuda visited a Hawaii farm while on tour across the state, where she was canvassing Hawaii to find out its agricultural and food priorities. (Courtesy: Office of Rep. Jill Tokuda)

You spent the past week traveling across Hawaii, canvassing the state’s food and agriculture industry to gather information on what Hawaii wants from the Farm Bill.

What were your key takeaways? 

I went everywhere from Kona to Kahului to Lanai, Molokai, Waianae, Waialua. Each community definitely had particular issues that were important for me to hear on how we’re going to support agriculture in Hawaii. More importantly, over the next five years, how we are going to make a viable industry for our farmers and agricultural producers.  

I think there were definitely some underlying, common issues.

The high cost of transportation; the high cost of inputs, everything from feed, fertilizer, equipment; the cost of getting their product off island; invasive species, disease. All of these things. 

Going into this Farm Bill, we’ve got to be more aggressive in making sure specialty crops are on the map.

Hawaii is not a commodity crop state. 

When we talk about specialty crops, that’s what we grow here. We grow coffee, macadamia nuts, avocado, ulu (breadfruit), cacao, floriculture. You ask me what I’m fighting for? I’m fighting for speciality crops. 

If we take a look at the invasive species, biosecurity is not always on the Farm Bill. But I think more than ever, now, we have to really make the case that Hawaii is in a unique situation when it comes to biosecurity.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

On climate change: 

If you think of every one of our growing communities across the state, they’re being hit with all ends of the climate spectrum. We got wildfires, we’ve flooding, we’ve got erosion, all of these different things. 

Climate change has really impacted our ability to produce. That is the bottom line. And so we’ve really got to start looking at that. 

I would say climate was not a part of it before, or as much, but it definitely needs to be a part of this Farm Bill. How we frame those issues? It might need to be just talking about weather and disaster management. 

Hawaii’s small but diverse agriculture sector is unique in the U.S. How might the Farm Bill be better tailored to help create a more sustainable and secure food system?

I think it’s about how we frame the discussion. We’re a geographically isolated state. And when we talk about that, how do we ensure fairness for our farmers, ranchers and producers that are living out here in the Pacific? 

A lot of discussion you hear in D.C. is about national security. Every single day I hear about national security, I hear about defending the Indo-Pacific. And Hawaii is part of that discussion, being on the front lines, protecting our country’s interests and our allies’ interests. So you cannot uncouple food security from national security.

If we really want this country to be ready to defend our nation and our allies in the Indo-Pacific, food security is something that Hawaii needs to make sure it’s got it down. Food insecurity will not help us. 

Commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans, have taken the lion’s share of Farm Bill funding in the past, which Rep. Tokuda wants to see change. (Photo Courtesy: Turtle Bay Resort)

One of the things that I’m fighting for is to increase the Micro-Grants for Food Security Program, to get $30 million. And I would say this: I want to work with the Hawaii Department of Ag to make sure it’s getting to the people who need it most.

Concerns have been raised about the cost of living in the wake of the pandemic, with the dropping of pandemic-based federal increases to programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Do you anticipate any of these concerns will be addressed in the next Farm Bill? 

SNAP is going to be one of those lines in the sand. We’re going to have to really push on the other side to be able to continue to fund, and for me, increase funding for these nutrition programs. 

I heard the need to feed our people for these nutrition programs in every single county. But I would say it really resonated loudly for me in Waianae. So many disparities exist and they don’t have access to fresh food. Not because it’s not being grown around them but because of cost.

I will say as well, as a result of going out to visit all of these SNAP processing centers, including Waianae’s program, we introduced the Keep Kupuna Fed Act, which would allow us to exempt Title II Social Security income from SNAP eligibility. What we heard at processing facilities was that because of the increase seniors got to their social security, they lost their SNAP benefits. 

The reality is so many folks in our community are falling off the hunger cliff. And farmers acknowledge the fact that they have a role to play in feeding our people, from our keiki to our kupuna. So we are working on finding things that would support those like the Da Bux program – I guess not just saying “let’s get more money for nutrition,” but “let’s get them real healthy, nutritious foods, grown by our local farmers.”

Hawaii’s food supply chain has got its issues. Do you envision the Farm Bill being able to address them?

I think that it can. There’s the transportation reimbursement program, which we are looking to increase the amount for. I think there is a need for longer term thinking about this because we could keep increasing those reimbursements, chasing increasing costs.

Slaughterhouses, such as this one on Big Island, are few and far between in Hawaii but a key part of a strong food system.
(Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022)

There’s a lot of discussion that needs to be done in our island chain in general, considering things like cold storage; how we process mac nuts on the Big Island; slaughterhouses: how we make the meat we need, game meat or beef.

Water is a huge one on the islands. That’s really critical. 

All these things, we can and have to fight for in the Farm Bill. The more we can make here, the better. That’s something I think we definitely have space for in the Farm Bill itself. 

You mentioned fighting for things and really advocating for Hawaii. How do you feel about coming on to the Agriculture Committee and having this massive bill looming over with this fight ahead?

I will say this, that the one thing Hawaii has going for it – and I am a hopeless optimist – is that while Hawaii is a small chain of islands, we are in a critical location.  

It costs more, it takes more, to grow and produce food here. But we are a critical point in our nation’s defense and security.

What some call specialty crops are indigenous food crops to us. This is what we eat, this is what we consume. This is what we can sell to be competitive across this country and quite frankly, globally. The bottom line is that we grow the very best here in Hawaii.

I will not stand for the fact that we have global products inundating our market when we can do better. 

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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