Hawaii is learning many lessons from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. One of the most critical, for the coming months as well as for our future generations, is that local food production is essential to our health, economic prosperity and security.
While the shipping companies that serve Hawaii — importing nearly 90% of the food we eat — have thankfully provided assurance that there will be no disruptions to deliveries of essential supplies during this current global crisis, what if that weren’t the case? What is our Plan B?
This is a time of disruption in many ways, so let’s disrupt our thinking about food. Let’s make a plan now that better prioritizes and supports local farmers for decades to come. Self-sufficiency, particularly in Hawaii, is not a new concept or a terribly complex one, so how do we implement strategies that create the meaningful changes we desperately need?
Budget: Our state Board of Agriculture is allotted 0.4% of the state’s overall budget to support agricultural initiatives. The board’s mission of preserving and encouraging the productive use of agricultural resources to ensure a healthy and adequate food supply for Hawaii’s people, among other goals, is incredibly difficult to achieve without appropriate funding. We must also strengthen and facilitate public-private partnerships to make best use of available resources. From this initial investment we will see an increasingly significant long-term payback as money and jobs remain in the state.
Innovation: The Hawaii Farmers Union United (HFUU), which helps serve 1,400 members across 13 chapters, recently launched a task force to organize local food production, aggregate existing food hubs, and collaborate with certified commercial kitchens.
Other partnerships, such as the “Farm to Car” pilot project organized by the Hawaii Farm Bureau, are also working with the same mission: To support our local farmers in growing and distributing food to the communities that need it most. Maui Mayor Michael Victorino, through the Office of Economic Development, is helping farmers pivot from serving temporarily closed hotels and restaurants to selling directly to consumers.
Collaboration: The development of strong food value chains — collaborative processes that bring together producers, manufacturers and buyers — takes time. There is no one solution that fits every community, but by having functioning systems in place, farmers can best mobilize resources to quickly and confidently respond to changing consumer needs. The USDA estimates that Hawaii is home to more than 7,000 farms, nearly all of which are less than 50 acres, and many of which are family operated. These are the farmers who benefit the most by having access to food hubs, which help food get more easily from farm to market by providing affordable access to aggregation, distribution and marketing services.
These are not untested concepts. Food value chains, food hubs and collaborative partnerships are already being used in Hawaii and in many other states. But we have much work to do in developing reliable systems that work effectively in good times, and especially in times of crisis.
State Sen. Mike Gabbard, chair of the Committee on Agriculture and Environment, recently summed it up: “In our worst fears, where global economic recession coupled with a global pandemic, is at our doorstep, and our island community is just days away from a food shortage, now is the time for action.”
We agree. During these unprecedented times, let us take unprecedented action to create a plan to feed ourselves.
Vincent Mina is president and Vincent Kimura is a board member of the Hawaii Farmers Union United (HFUU).