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Can Hawaii regain its food independence?

Food producers, service providers and consumers heard highlights Monday from a new report about Hawaii’s reliance on imported food.

The report’s framework triggered wide-ranging discussion among the audience of social service providers, state and county workers, public health workers, political leaders, farmers and other interested individuals.

The report, which is not yet complete, is called “Growing Secure Food Systems in Hawaii” and is authored by Ken Meter, president of Crossroads Resource Center in Minneapolis, who has studied the food systems of multiple states.

His report is needed because most food consumed in Hawaii is imported, a drastic change from a century ago, and the food production system has had economic consequences, according to Meter. Now, various Big Island players want to see if they can instigate change.

The report documents the rising costs of farming in Hawaii, despite lower farm income, and the limitations of a cash-based agricultural economy.

In 1903, Hawaii produced more than 90 percent of the meat consumed in the state, more than 40 percent of the cereals and grains, nearly half of the fish, and most of the fruits, nuts and vegetables, Meter said to about 35 attendees at the Hawaii County Office of Aging in Hilo.

Today, those products are still produced in Hawaii, but only about half of the fruits, nuts, eggs, vegetables, meat and fish consumed comes from Hawaii — and hardly any of the grains.

The problem that created the reliance on mainland food, Meter said, is that farm subsidies were offered in Hawaii long ago. That led to plantations that owned large amounts of land, restricted its sale and brought in workers. That system led to a need for subsidies for low-income housing for workers. That then led to housing debt and the need for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program services.

The irony, Meter said, is that kids in general are growing up in areas that were once self-sustaining food-wise. But now, those kids typically don’t learn how to grow food, garden or cook. Instead, they pop a box into the microwave for dinner, and that food comes from the mainland.

Historically, Meter told the audience, sugar and pineapple companies, for example, made great wealth. But that wealth did not trickle down to workers.

Now, 1 of every 4 people in the state is low income. So today’s system of buying food instead of growing your own does not help the impoverished climb financially, Meter said.

“I really do think this is the place we learn about how to do economic development in a way we might have not thought about,” he said.

Hawaii, as a state, he said, could declare food to be a public trust, the way water is. It won’t happen overnight. But might take decades, Meter said.

A coordinated, well-planned path will be required to focus greater attention on where Hawaii’s food comes from, Meter said.

That could include efforts to create neighborhood trade economies; connecting organizations such as schools, universities, hospitals and prisons with nearby food suppliers; connecting farmers directly with consumers who value their products; and creating collaborations in which food growers, consumers, distributors and regulators make decisions about production, based on demand.

Too often, people in Hawaii County do not have enough food to eat, Meter said.

“If you can say, ‘We want to make sure everybody is eating,’ you have a very different food system,” he said.

One in every 4 people eligible for SNAP benefits does not sign up, he said, leaving more than $100 million worth of food — that could be bought from small farmers — out of the farm economy and out of the hands of people who are hungry.

Federal SNAP benefits are “a more important source of food in Hawaii than farming, and that’s a remarkable situation to be in,” Meter said.

He advised that members of the Food Access Working Group from the Big Island, which organized his presentation, to consider working to increase community-based food systems and seek declaration of food as a public trust, along with water and land.

The group commissioned the report, along with The Food Basket, the Kohala Center and the state Department of Health.

Policymakers should consider agricultural subsidies, zoning and the dynamic parts that create food security, said En Young, executive director of The Food Basket.

“All these things need to be put together into a package that is going to align to the goal,” he said.

State Sen. Russell Ruderman, who is part of the Food Access Working Group, said his company, Island Naturals, seeks organic food suppliers from the region.

“We still can’t buy locally organic broccoli, for example,” he said, noting there are business opportunities available for farmers.

He also suggested value-added options. Instead of trying to sell all of a farmer’s cabbage at once, he said, the farmer could dry the cabbage to sell at other times of the year.

“Dry it and sell it next February, or sell it in Maine,” Ruderman said. That, he said, is where the state can come in — by making investments in “infrastructure to do drying.”

Meter said the state could decide to set up a collaboration/connection-friendly system just like it decided to set up a plantation-friendly system.

Email Jeff Hansel at jhansel@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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