By ZOE SIMS
Stephens Media Hawaii
A new West Hawaii project is recycling a Polynesian staple to feed the hungry.
Breadfruit Harvest for Hunger harvests Kona growers’ surplus breadfruit and distributes it to local agencies feeding the food insecure, such as the Ocean View Food Basket, the Hawaii Island Youth Corps and the Meet and Eat program with the Kona Task Force on Feeding the Hungry. The project is part of an international movement to rebrand breadfruit as a practical, nutritious solution for food security issues.
“We never have leftovers when we have breadfruit,” said Ardie Ikeda, the task force coordinator for the Meet and Eat program.
Breadfruit is a familiar staple for many Pacific Islanders, which Ikeda said makes the initiative successful with his program’s participants. The project shares raw breadfruit, recipes and prepared breadfruit dishes with needy families at the weekly dinners.
The initiative is a project of Hooulu ka Ulu, a program aiming to “revitalize” breadfruit as a nutritious, easy-to-grow, delicious staple and address Hawaii’s food security issues, according to the organization. Hooulu ka Ulu is led by the Hawaii Homegrown Food Network and the Breadfruit Institute of the National Tropical Botanical Garden. The network hopes the breadfruit projects reduce Hawaii’s dependence on imported starches, said Craig Elevitch, the co-director of Hooulu ka Ulu and Breadfruit Harvest for Hunger.
The institute applies this vision on a regional scale by researching, cultivating, and spreading breadfruit to regions where the abundant, energy-rich crop is part of the solution to food insecurity, said Diane Ragone, the institute’s director.
“Throughout the Pacific, traditionally, indigenous people have relied on breadfruit as one of their main staples,” Elevitch said. “When we started looking at breadfruit a few years ago, we realized it’s really an incredible food: it’s nutritious, it’s gluten-free, and it has more potassium than bananas by weight.”
Breadfruit was once a staple in Hawaii and throughout the Pacific Islands, but “westernization” of the Hawaiian diet replaced breadfruit with rice, wheat, and other foods, Elevitch said.
The institute and Hooulu ka Ulu are dedicated to reversing this trend. “We’re seeing a global renaissance and interest in breadfruit,” Ragone said.
According to the institute’s website, more than 80 percent of the world’s hungry live in tropical and subtropical regions. Over two billion people live in places with ecological conditions suitable for growing breadfruit.
Breadfruit trees produce abundantly and require minimal maintenance. A single tree in its prime can produce an average of 150 to 300 fruits every year, with each fruit weighing 2 to 3 pounds, Elevitch said.
This abundance can be overwhelming for families that cannot keep up with their trees’ production. According to the Hawaii Homegrown Food Network, growers report 46 percent of the breadfruit their trees produce goes to waste.
Volunteers harvested more than 500 pounds of breadfruit in the project’s first round of harvests early this year, Elevitch said. A single day of harvesting can yield several hundred pounds of breadfruit.
The project held four harvests in the spring breadfruit season between January and March. Harvesting will continue later this month and through October, Elevitch said, because fall is breadfruit’s most productive season.
Elevitch said transportation and processing is challenging. After a harvest, the fruit must be taken to distribution centers quickly, while still fresh. Excess fruit is cut, steamed, and frozen using the Culinary Arts Program’s certified kitchen at the West Hawaii Center of the Hawaii Community College. Elevitch said this processing stage is the project’s main bottleneck.
Breadfruit’s short shelf life is difficult for growers and retailers. If picked ripe, the fruit lasts one or two weeks with refrigeration, and only a few days without refrigeration.
Some farmers extend breadfruit’s shelf life by picking it early, when the fruit is still green and hard. While breadfruit is still edible at this stage, it has a rubbery texture instead of the sweet starchiness of a ripe fruit, Elevitch said. Hooulu ka Ulu aims to teach farmers to harvest ripe breadfruit.
Because unfamiliarity with breadfruit is a barrier, Hooulu ka Ulu also holds festivals and workshops to raise public awareness. In addition to more traditional uses, breadfruit can be prepared much like potatoes in dishes, such as breadfruit fries, curries, or potato salad.
Breadfruit Harvest for Hunger has success freezing breadfruit for storage. The fully cooked, frozen product could be used on a year-round basis, making it more practical for families and chefs. Hooulu ka Ulu hopes to spark interest in breadfruit by working with chefs to get breadfruit onto restaurant menus.
Ragone has studied traditional methods of breadfruit cultivation, storage, and processing throughout the Pacific. Many Pacific Islander groups traditionally preserved breadfruit through a drying process. It could also be fermented in large leaf-lined pits to make a tart dough, as taro is fermented to make poi. Stored in this way, breadfruit could last all year — or longer — until the next fruiting season. The fruit can also be dried and ground into flour.
Before Western contact, Hawaiians cultivated a stretch of agricultural land 18 miles long and a half-mile wide in Kona’s lowlands, Elevitch said. It is estimated this farmland produced 72 million pounds of breadfruit each year, in addition to taro, sweet potatoes, and other crops that grew beneath the trees’ canopy. The importance of breadfruit in the Hawaiian diet varied by region, Elevitch said. In Puna, Ka’u and Kohala, breadfruit was Hawaiians’ primary food source.
The institute is researching different breadfruit varieties to explore their nutritional properties and growing potential. The most common variety in Hawaii, known as ulu, is a starchy fruit rich in complex carbohydrates, fiber and potassium. It is about one to three percent protein, which is less than rice and wheat, but comparable to potatoes and other starchy corps. Ragone said the institute is researching varieties that contain nutrients such as iron and vitamin A, which are key to preventing malnutrition-related illnesses. The institute distributes growing materials and plants to facilitate these varieties’ spread.
Ragone also sees potential for a Samoan variety of breadfruit that is less common in the Hawaiian Islands. The tree has a more compact shape and growth structure, making it more manageable and practical for certain landscapes.
“These products (breadfruit, avocados, and mangoes) are natural and organic and they grow freely. If we can harvest them properly and utilize them to supplement our diets, that will always be part of the solution for hunger,” Ikeda said.
For more information, visit ntbg.org/breadfruit and breadfruit.info. To get involved or donate, email email@example.com or call Elevitch at 756-9437.