By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A number of measures making their way through the current Legislative session aim to decrease Hawaii’s dependence on the mainland when it comes to food.
A long-held fear among legislators and the general public alike in Hawaii has revolved around what might happen in a scenario in which imports of food and other supplies to the Hawaiian islands are halted, due to any number of factors, such as a natural disaster wiping out harbors.
“The legislature finds that Hawaii is dangerously dependent on imported food,” reads the introduction to Senate Bill 937, which would establish a new branch of the Department of Agriculture to boost Hawaii’s “food resiliency.”
“As the most geographically isolated state in the country, Hawaii imports approximately 92 percent of its food, according to the Pacific Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments Program. … The legislature further finds that Hawaii’s reliance on out-of-state sources of food places residents directly at risk of food shortages in the event of natural disasters, economic disruption, and other external factors beyond the state’s control,” the bill reads.
Such dependency on imports means that Hawaii currently has an inventory of fresh produce that would supply consumers for no more than 10 days. Meanwhile, a total of 90 percent of the beef, 67 percent of the fresh vegetables, 65 percent of the fresh fruits, and 80 percent of all milk purchased in the state are imported.
In addition to the obvious drawbacks in the event of a shortage, the high levels of importation also mean a lost opportunity for economic growth and job creation.
“The research shows that replacing 10 percent of current food imports with locally grown food will create a total of 2,300 jobs,” The bill says. “The legislature thus funds that increasing the amount of locally grown food by as little as 10 percent could keep hundreds of millions of dollars circulating within Hawaii’s economy, stimulate growth, and create thousands of new jobs. Such diversification would help make Hawaii’s economy more resilient to worldwide events.”
To address such concerns, SB 937 seeks the creation of a statewide initiative to enhance food self-sufficiency for Hawaii, while establishing a new branch of the Department of Agriculture and a task force to identify and set goals for that initiative. It also seeks funding appropriations to support the initiative.
The Senate Committee on Ways and Means recommended the measure’s passage on Wednesday, with the approval of Big Island Sens. Gil Kahele, D-Hilo, and Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, Ka‘u.
Senate Bill 524, which also received Kahele’s and Ruderman’s support upon passing through the Ways and Means committee on Feb. 21, seeks to do much the same thing. It requests appropriations aimed at launching a program charged with increasing demand while at the same time boosting access to locally grown foods. The program would, among other things, work to expand marketing campaigns promoting benefits of local foods, encourage public institutions like schools to purchase locally grown food, improve agricultural infrastructure, and expand workforce development services for the agriculture industry.
In a Wednesday interview, Ruderman said he supports the bills and others like them, both as a legislator and a businessman who operates a chain of health-food stores in Hawaii.
“As someone who works in the industry, I understand how important it is. … I’ve learned, from being in the business many years, what we need to fill the gaps in the local food picture. I think there’s a few important pieces missing from the puzzle,” he said.
Those gaps cover areas such as marketing and distribution, as well as what he called “value-added food production.”
“Every week, we import 80 or 90 percent of our food from the mainland. And, if you look closely at what we’re importing … inside those cardboard boxes, it’s 95 percent water and air,” he explained. “You’ve got bottles of iced tea, chips, crackers, cookies. …
“We have to recognize the foolishness of this and recognize the value that would come from making most of those items here. Although we may not grow wheat here, we should still be able to make the cookies and crackers here. … And while we’re making them here, we could include some local ingredients. We’ll all benefit from fresher food at lower prices.”
He added that, as the CEO of a health foods company, he could stand to benefit from such legislation, but not any more than anyone else.
“There’s nothing that is going to benefit my business above all the other food businesses,” he said. “I’m trying to promote local food, period. We’re aiming at promoting local food at a statewide level. This is not a bill to support my business.”
Ruderman added that he has introduced another bill, Senate Bill 380, which tackles the food security issue from the education angle. It would gauge the need for a learning center project in Puna through the University of Hawaii’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management.
It would “identify educational and training needs in the district and design a business incubator approach to support job growth in the district,” according to the bill.
Ruderman explained that he’s shooting for an appropriation of between $100,000 and $200,000 to fund two or three positions. He said that he anticipates being able to qualify for a federal grant to help fund the program once it is established.
Barbara Leonard, an associate professor of accounting at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, told senators in testimony supplied earlier this month that such a project would help support the rapidly growing and under-represented area of Puna.
“Puna’s educational infrastructure is in great need of support and needs to grow to accommodate (Puna’s) growing population. Presently, there are no higher educational opportunities in Puna, which is almost the size of the island of Kauai. Puna has the lowest per capita income of any region in the state, and needs more educational opportunities to help stimulate the economy and personal household income of the residents of Puna,” she said.
On Feb. 22, the Senate Ways and Means committee recommended the bill for passage. Ruderman said he anticipates the bill being discussed on the Senate floor next week.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.