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Hawaii consumers turn toward locally grown produce

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Melissa Mainz of 808 Organics prepares bags of fresh local produce from growers statewide to be picked up by her customers every Thursday at Coffee Talk in Kaimuki. Her business has dramatically increased during the COVID-19 crisis, and she now has a long waiting list.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Melissa Mainz of 808 Organics prepares bags of fresh local produce from growers statewide to be picked up by her customers every Thursday at Coffee Talk in Kaimuki. Her business has dramatically increased during the COVID-19 crisis, and she now has a long waiting list.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Melissa Mainz, right, leaves bags of produce with Coffee Talk owner Liz Schwartz.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Melissa Mainz, right, leaves bags of produce with Coffee Talk owner Liz Schwartz.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased interest in buying locally sourced produce.

Demand for produce pickup and delivery services has also spiked.

To be sure, the shutdown of hotels and restaurants has hurt farmers throughout the state, but some operations have experienced a bump in direct sales to consumers — so much so that some services can’t keep up.

“It’s pretty crazy. The demand is bananas,” Melissa Mainz of 808 Organics said. “I guess the problem now is that there’s only so much food that’s been planted. … It’s going to take some time to ramp up.”

Photo Gallery: Hawaii consumers turn to local produce during coronavirus pandemic

Mainz and her mother run the 4-year-old 808 Organics, packing locally grown fruits, vegetables and eggs in produce boxes that can be delivered or picked up. She said her orders have increased two to five times since the new coronavirus hit Hawaii.

Mainz said she essentially does personal shopping for customers. Every week, she heads to the airport to pick up hundreds of pounds of produce grown on neighbor islands for her boxes.

She has a waiting list of about 100 people seeking her services. Only one of her pickup locations — at Coffee Talk in Kaimuki — remains open.

Mainz said support will likely wane once the economy reopens, but she believes people will continue to seek out locally sourced produce.

“Some people, yes, will definitely see the value, because the food tastes better,” she said. “It’s fresher, it lasts longer, it’s better for you.”

It’s a similar case for Oahu Fresh, a subscription service that also delivers produce boxes.

“We’ve definitely gotten busier. We’re doing a lot more home deliveries,” CEO Matt Johnson said. “We have a lot of new products, and we’re working with a lot more different farmers and also a lot more artisanal vendors.”

Johnson said Oahu Fresh is still taking on subscribers, but limiting its subscription options to prevent being overwhelmed by new customers.

Business has increased tenfold, Johnson said. He has added staff and partnered with Aloha Hospitality Professionals, which makes the deliveries.

“We’ve been doing this for 10 years. This is kind of a whole new scale for us,” he said.

Denise Hayashi Yamaguchi, executive director of Hawaii Agricultural Foundation, said farmers large and small have been negatively affected by the coronavirus but that smaller farms have been able to shift focus to new customers.

“Because they have smaller quantities, many have been able to pivot and adjust to find new markets such as sales direct-to- consumer or through local CSAs (community-supported agriculture),” she said via email.

A survey published in April by the University of Hawaii’s Economic Research Organization showed that over 20% of employees who worked in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting businesses in January have since been laid off.

Those businesses expect to see a 16% drop in revenue this year relative to 2019.

On the other hand, the coronavirus has made people more appreciative of local agriculture.

“There has been an outpouring of support and empathy toward farmers that I have never seen before, and it’s really good to see how the public has connected to the people who grow our food,” Yamaguchi said. “Now more than ever, there is a much-deserved appreciation for the people who work so hard to make sure we have food on our tables.”

Farmers markets have also started new services to provide social distance-friendly experiences.

Boyar said farmers have been doing well at farmers markets during the pandemic.

“This is such a great opportunity right now to increase what they’re growing, because people are becoming aware of how important it is to shop local,” she said. “This is the best time for the farmers ever. I’m so thrilled for them. … And you know what? They deserve it.”

Farm Lovers Markets is offering curbside pickups, allowing customers to call farmers directly.

Owner Pam Boyar, who said she would rather keep farmers markets a more personal experience, decided to do curbside pickups in response to shoppers’ concerns about catching the coronavirus.

“If my customers call a farmer and don’t want to get out of their car, we’ll take care of it so they can pick it up,” Boyar said. “If that’s going to be something of the way of the future … then that’s what we’ll do.”

The Hawaii Farm Bureau set up a “Farm-to-Car” program during the outbreak for a similar reason.

Some have noticed more people talking seriously about Hawaii shifting from its dependence on tourism to an economy focused more on agriculture.

“If we’re going to do tourism, maybe we need to do (agriculture) tourism. … Maybe we need to re-brand ourselves,” Boyar said. “A lot of the younger people that are involved in agriculture said we should become an agricultural society, and there’s a lot of money in it.”

Mainz has noticed the same thing.

“There’s actually conversations about changing the economy, from not just people deemed kind of crazy and on the outskirts, like it used to be,” she said. “I’ve just seen a couple more top-level conversations rather than just like me on the phone with a friend.”


See the Wednesday Crave section for a resource guide to buying from local farms, or go to 808ne.ws/farm2you.


Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

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