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Eating local not so simple

Homegrown produce isn't cheap, it's not always easy to find, and cooking it can be a challenge, but it's good for the body and soul

By Vicki Viotti

LAST UPDATED: 12:35 a.m. HST, Oct 15, 2010

The people who entered the Eat Local Challenge last week -- picking up the gauntlet that Kanu Hawaii threw down -- probably learned a lot of lessons in the attempt. Here are two:

» It's harder than it sounds to eat entirely local things, even for a day.

» It's easier than it sounds to increase the local things you eat on any week, by just spending a little more time tooling around the produce section.

Kanu Hawaii is a nonprofit organization that tries to encourage better behavior by coaxing small promises from its members. I'll drink from a cup instead of plastic bottles. I'll carpool at least once a week. It's the whole sustainability push.

"Kanu" means rooted or planted: If you're in Hawaii to stay, why not act as if you're invested in its long-term survival?

On the Eat Local Challenge, which ended Saturday, participants enjoy fresher food, and aim to help local farmers along the way.

The eat-local movement started on the mainland when upscale restaurant chefs wanted fresher ingredients for their guests and decided to partner directly with the local farmers. It's not just for foodie snobs: Farmers markets here attract everyone from grandmas to tourists by the busload.

Still, homegrown produce isn't cheap. My commitment was to do one day of eating entirely local food -- I ended up doing Wednesday and, using leftovers, Saturday -- and then try for one meal for each of the remaining days.

Here's a price sampling:

» The initial shop at Foodland rang up at $24, including mainly produce.

» Seven ounces of 100 percent Kona coffee beans was $10 on sale at Longs.

» Over at Whole Foods, the bottle of Maui Blanc pineapple wine cost $12; the macadamia nut oil for cooking, $7.

» Times Supermarkets yielded local au (also known as kajiki, or swordfish) at about $8 for two reasonable servings; dried aku cost $5.76, about 1 1/2 servings.

Besides cost, the other challenge is the time it takes to find the local items that are scattered to the four winds. One store had Hawaiian salt, but it was mixed with imported stuff.

Another had fish, but it actually came from the Marshall Islands.

One store has local eggs or milk, the other doesn't.

And convenience in cooking? Nothing doing.

Here's a brief rundown of how my week played out. I started a day late, so the meal preparations were from Monday through Sunday.


At Foodland and Longs there were Asian long beans, mushrooms, bananas, papaya, Kona coffee, basil, tomatoes.


Decided to add daily meals only after leaving for work; fortunately, there were a few takeout eateries participating, with homegrown offerings. Lunch was a loco moco plate from Zippy's, hold the gravy; the $7.25 Eat Local special came with Nalo greens. Local beef really does taste better. The plate arrived with rice -- old habits die hard -- that was saved for the nonobservant spouse at home.


On assignment to the North Shore where, luckily, there were multiple lunchwagons serving local shrimp. The butter and garlic surely weren't local, so this meal didn't count. But at dinnertime, Whole Foods offered a "local" salad bar. It took some consultation to learn which items really came from here: namasu, daikon, tofu, squash. (The tofu, I learned later, may have been made here, but from imported beans.)

Checking for possible salad toppings at Times, I struck the ahi poke from the list right off. The label listed all kinds of foreign ingredients in the marinade. Dried aku from Hawaii sat nearby, though. That worked -- especially for the family cat, who happily scarfed up all the trimmings at home.


Breakfast consisted of two scrambled eggs, prepared with Hawaiian salt, fresh basil, tomatoes and Big Isle milk, one-quarter Kahuku papaya and Kona coffee. We made enough of the coffee to fill a small thermos for work. Living without Diet Coke for the day was still tough.

Lunch was a big salad of local romaine and arugula, plus mushrooms, pepper, avocado and a pile of cubed aku. Dressing is essentially the marinade for the dinner fish -- oil, diced tomatoes, salt and basil.

Dinner was a feast of broiled kajiki, Kahuku corn, long beans, a little kale from my coworker's garden, a salad with the same stuff as lunch minus the aku, a little poi and Maui Blanc pineapple wine.

Getting through the day took labor and time, but even a careless cook can hardly mess up, given ingredients that are this fresh.


Breakfast is the easiest meal to manage for the rest of the work week. Two more eggs, scrambled with leftover green pepper and basil, sauteed in mac nut oil. Plus the remaining half of the papaya.


No time to top up on the shopping, so it's time to get creative. Mixing mashed banana with leftover poi and milk passed muster even if turning into a fritter became a gooey nonstarter. With scrambled eggs, the mess still tasted good.


Better eat light, because we're off to the Kapiolani Community College farmers market. Poi, banana, milk, mashed and microwaved; out the door. A few hours later, after tangling with the teeming crowds, here's the final haul: Okinawan sweet potatoes, bananas, oranges, limes and, last but not least, yogurt from Naked Cow Dairy (now there's a business named with marketing in mind). It was a humid morning, but snacking on a mango all-fruit Ono Pop cured that, even at the $3 price.

For lunch, I boiled a mess of Okinawan sweet potatoes, mashed them with milk, a little yogurt, salt and basil and fried up a couple of spectacularly purple patties. Nuked the leftover kale and beans and ate that, too.

And here's one way to put the rest of the local milk to good use: That old yogurt maker still works, it seems. With the milk and the local yogurt as a starter, in 10 hours it produced a quart of yogurt.

We were running out of steam but dinner leftovers saved us: kajiki, sweet potatoes, long beans and pineapple wine, plus an orange for dessert.


One last meal, no fresh ideas: eggs scrambled with yogurt, basil, salt, mushrooms, beans, served with another purple patty and the rest of the Kona coffee.

In my Facebook discussions, one of my friends suggested a way to compensate for the lack of homegrown starches. "Maybe Hawaii needs to experiment with plantains and yuca (cassava) for more variety in the carbo department," Kenn Fujioka wrote. "Something I learned from my friend in Jamaica -- green bananas can be boiled then peeled. They're a lot like potatoes."

Kanu is still compiling its official evaluation of the challenge, but James Koshiba, executive director, estimated participation at about 1,500, possibly approaching the goal of 2,000. There will be a follow-up challenge, too.

"Our hope was to get a lot of people in the door on this challenge, but we want this to result in lasting change," Koshiba said. "That's why we're asking participants to shift a little bit of their food budget to local produce permanently."

On the Kanu site, member Carmilie Lim blogged about the demographic of those who "eat local."

"How many of those successful in the eat local challenge (and lifestyle) are well off financially?" she wrote. "How many of those in struggling middle class families would like to eat local, but cannot for similar family and culture reasons?"

Not that many, is the obvious answer. But almost everyone can do more than they're doing, keeping an eye peeled for the homegrown items they otherwise might miss. For example, in our house we always eat local apple bananas because they're just superior and are worth a little markup. The same attitude could apply to local eggs, for example. We don't eat enough of those for the price difference to mean much, and fresher is just better.

And better taste seems to have only one down side: Homegrown calories still count. I'm up a pound this week.

CORRECTION: The farmers market booth shown in a Page A15 photo on Oct. 6 was at Kaiser High School. The caption stated it was at Kalani High School.

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