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Editorial | Island Voices

Column: Pandemic shows agriculture’s vital role

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  • Jesse Cooke

    Jesse Cooke

  • GEORGE F. LEE / 2018
                                Local farmers play an important role in Hawaii’s food self-suffi ciency. Pictured is fruit from Hamakua sold at the Maku‘u Farmers Market on the Big Island.

    GEORGE F. LEE / 2018

    Local farmers play an important role in Hawaii’s food self-suffi ciency. Pictured is fruit from Hamakua sold at the Maku‘u Farmers Market on the Big Island.

As an island-state, our food supply network has always been critical to the survival and sustainability of our lives and lifestyle. During natural disasters, awareness is heightened, spurring panic buying and hoarding, from Spam to toilet paper. The coronavirus pandemic is a health crisis that has caused a similar, if not more dramatic, response.

If there are any positives that we can take away from this harrowing situation, it is greater awareness of our perilous overreliance on imported food, the important role our local farmers play in reducing that tenuous dependence, and the urgent need for Hawaii to move toward food self-sufficiency (“Hawaii needs robust plan to feed residents,” Insight, Star-Advertiser, April 12).

The movement toward sustainability in Hawaii has gained momentum in recent years. The current health crisis causes us to focus on two of its core elements: self-sufficiency and resilience.

Even now, we are beginning to see global and national food producer markets diminished. Disruptions in the usual food distribution networks and job uncertainty are leaving segments of our community exposed. Continuing to depend on importing 90% of our food is a dangerous gamble an island-state can’t afford.

Local farmers, ranchers and nonprofits are coming together to feed Hawaii families on a massive scale — especially, those most impacted by this crisis. The Hawaii Farm Bureau Foundation is doing good work developing an improved food supply chain. We hope the $150,000 grant provided through the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation will encourage additional support of local farmers and organizations that purchase their produce. It helps local agriculture producers, not only during the current crisis but beyond, by increasing long-term food security and resilience in Hawaii.

The times call for out-of-the-box thinking and realizing that right now, there is no such thing as “business as usual.” Life and business presently are anything but usual.

A good example is DA BUX Double Up Food Bucks, a pilot program administered by The Food Basket, Hawaii island’s food bank, in partnership with the Hawaii Good Food Alliance, a diverse hui of community leaders. The program doubles the value of benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) spent on local food at participating retail grocers.

It’s time for our state to put achievable plans behind lofty food production goals. For instance, once students begin returning to classrooms, the progress of the Hawaii Department of Education’s farm-to-school programs must not only be continued but accelerated. This will help future-proof student access to meals and strengthen the local food production market — in a way that few institutions other than government can do.

We challenge the Ige administration and the Hawaii Board of Education to make all student meals 25% locally sourced by 2025. This could be accomplished by expanding the program by 5% every year until we reach that goal. It would be bold yet measured, creating reliable demand necessary for local producers. It’s achievable and would be a game-changer.

Our local farmers are caught in the middle of this crisis and could be a casualty that we can little afford to lose. They need our support as much as we need theirs.

Jesse Cooke is a vice president of investment and analytics at Ulupono Initiative (

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