It’s 10 a.m., the start of a typical day at the Waimanalo Market Co-op, and farmers bustle in with trays, boxes and bundles of all manner of freshly picked produce.
After volunteers wash and weigh the bounty, it hits the sales floor, filling refrigerated cases and tables amid displays of artisanal goods — greens, eggplant, lilikoi, olena (turmeric), kalo (taro), ulu (breadfruit) and more are set out alongside locally made jams, natural remedies, jewelry, apparel, kitchenware, art and plants.
WAIMANALO MARKET CO-OP
>> Location: 41-1029 Kalanianaole Highway
>> Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays
>> Info: 690-7607 or visit waimanalomarket.com
Also at the co-op:
>> Farmers market: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays; email email@example.com
>> “Medicine as Food” (6 p.m. Saturday): Discussion about the medicinal properties of food. $5, free to members.
Chatter abounds as farmers talk shop and neighbors talk story. Customers, both locals and tourists, get into the mix with volunteer cashiers who tell them stories about the folks who supplied their merchandise.
“Everybody here is joyful,” said Stephanie Pintz, a Waimanalo resident who’s volunteered at the market for about six months. “My husband and I started coming in as customers. We thought it was a great thing for the community and decided to help in whatever way we could.”
Yet for all the enthusiasm, the co-op faces an insecure future. General Manager Leinaala Bright says that while the co-op has state nonprofit status, it does not yet meet federal criteria that would allow it to qualify for a host of grants.
Most recently, the co-op was denied a sizable grant that was to fund its operating costs.
To make up for it, Bright is considering subletting space for a coffee kiosk and a fresh-fish station, and the co-op might open a shave ice stand. A newly certified kitchen now allows for prepared food to be sold as well. But that may not be enough.
“We can expect to stay open four to six months if things don’t get better. Something has to start happening now, or the doors will close,” Bright flatly stated.
“When I think of everyone here we’re supporting …” she said, her voice trailing off. “It’s total community development.”
Bright, 58, strolls the sales floor, pointing out crafts by kupuna and the display of photography by a 12-year-old neighborhood boy. The crafts supplement the seniors’ fixed incomes, while the photos afford the youth lessons in business.
She says one woman who brought in aloe to sell wants to spread the word about the plant’s medicinal qualities because it is helping a sick relative. Then there’s the family living in a tent whom Bright is encouraging to bring in the taro they grow. The tales are endless.
“Prices change weekly, but farmers get 70 percent, the co-op takes 30 percent. Consignment items are 65 percent/35 percent,” she said, explaining that even a few dollars in sales can make a big difference.
In total the co-op sells the products of some 100 growers and more than 70 artisans from the area.
THE CO-OP site, long a community gathering spot, has roots that date from 1953, when it was the home of the mom-and-pop store Mel’s Market. Mel’s closed in 2011, and in July 2013 two anonymous Waimanalo couples purchased the property to prevent it from being sold to a big commercial enterprise. In November 2013 the co-op opened, at first operating just two days a week. It was a bare-bones operation, with no electricity, much less refrigeration.
“We hauled ice for over a year,” said co-op board President Mike Buck of the earliest days, when produce was sold from coolers.
Since then refrigerated cases have been secured, and just before the new year, the kitchen was certified. The co-op also signed a 10-year lease (before learning of the denial of the grant).
Its existence has made a big difference for farmers seeking to expand.
Leonard Hall, 48, sells the co-op almost everything he grows on a quarter-acre of land leased from GoFarm Hawaii — that includes bananas, tomatoes, string beans, kale, okra, eggplant, papaya, squash and 12 native varieties of taro. Hall is completing a training program for aspiring farmers under GoFarm. A USDA grant covers his consignment fee.
The same grant, secured by the co-op, pays Dennis Bio, 54, to work closely with Hall and other farmers, and run a farmers market.
Jay Bost, farm coach at GoFarm, says the partnership with the co-op benefits all involved.
“It’s a unique experience for any farmer to walk into a retailer and be welcomed with open arms,” he said.
“It’s an interesting relationship because some of the things the students grow are not things people in Waimanalo are used to eating, like fennel and arugula. But the co-op is open to trying anything. It’s neat for the students to sell what they harvest and for the community to try new fruits and vegetables,” he added.
Bright’s fiance, David McGuire, 58, brings in watercress from his small aquaponic farm, and it has proved popular. He’s hoping to expand.
“When you buy something from the co-op, you know you’re supporting your neighbors. You know where your food comes from,” said Buck, yet another backyard farmer. “We’re hoping people who come to shop see the added benefit of keeping the dollars in the community.”
Contact Leinaala Bright at firstname.lastname@example.org.