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Column: Coronavirus pandemic reveals food-supply fragility

                                Hunter Heaivilin is a food systems planner, and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography and Environment at UH-Manoa.
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Hunter Heaivilin is a food systems planner, and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography and Environment at UH-Manoa.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing fragility and inequity in our food system. We should learn from the past and undertake critical food system resilience and emergency planning. There has been no time with a greater need or opportunity to cultivate a diverse archipelago economy.

For 50 years, local farmers have sold “ethnic fruits, vegetables and other food items” at the People’s Open Markets across Oahu. On March 16, per gathering- size recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the City and County of Honolulu closed our public parks and suspended all 25 city-run markets.

Some other markets are open with distancing restrictions, but it’s more difficult now for low-income communities to find affordable and culturally preferred food.

So far, this pandemic has disrupted our food system demand chain, how and where we get food. Market closings, effective eat-at-home directives, and tanking tourism have stranded goods in restaurant fridges and farm fields. Heroic work has connected those goods with food banks. Meanwhile, food hubs, community-supported agriculture (CSAs), and home delivery services are surging with participation.

Local supply chains are restructuring, even as global supply remains intact. Though we can’t predict all the disruptions that lie ahead, we should learn from how we planned for them in the past.

During World War I, Hawaii’s Legislature created the Territorial Food Commission with wide powers to fix prices, seize and allocate food supplies. In World War II, our Office of Civilian Defense’s food control board became the army Governor’s Office of Food Control and oversaw price, production and imports.

The WWI commission’s robust Women’s Committee performed massive outreach. WWII’s effort faced early backlash for not including women on the board. WWI’s commission funded county agents to work with small farmers, a program that later became part of University of Hawaii extension. WWII’s work was dominated by plantation interests that wrongly assumed their industrial agricultures could easily transition to local food production. These are durable lessons on the value of inclusive planning that incorporates long-term impact.

Disaster planning around food often focuses on supply disruptions. Think shortages and distribution issues addressed by mass feeding coordinated with food banks. With this logic, emergency recommendations are that we all have a two-week supply of food and water. There are no significant food stockpiles in the state. Few know these things and even fewer are so prepared. In the flood of unemployment claims, as incomes dry up and savings evaporate, people are losing purchasing power. We cannot expect food banks alone to be the life raft.

We need better connections between local agriculture, emergency food distribution, and long-term economic planning. Yet, there is no role or plan to ensure that emergency food planning bolsters the local food system and economy. There is no long-term food system resilience plan. There is no entity even tasked with considering such an approach. This crisis is a rare opportunity to change that.

We need to build an archipelago economy in place of our decimated tourism-driven economy.

The local food system is changing, but many consumers and farmers still face dire times ahead. We should wield global food and tourism to benefit the islands, but we also need to invest in sustaining ourselves. An emergency food coalition and food resilience plan are needed to grapple with the complexi- ties we face. Investments today determine how many tomorrows will have the same overwhelming dependence on imported tourists and foods.

This long emergency pandemic is embedded within the longer one of climate change. We must buoy ourselves from more uncertain futures by planning resilient island food systems, and we must do it now.

Hunter Heaivilin is a food systems planner, and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography and Environment at UH-Manoa.

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