Now they need our help to grow
By Jesse Cooke and Keith DeMello
By the end of March, as our state was beginning to truly feel the severe and direct impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture estimated that Hawaii farmers had already lost 50% of their market, largely because of sudden shutdowns of the hotel and restaurant industries.
Based on available data from 2017, farmers of vegetables, melons and potatoes generated $85 million in revenue in the islands. If we assume half of those sales were to hotel and restaurant markets, those farmers are experiencing losses of $800,000 per week.
Local cattle producers reported 2017 sales of $34 million. Their losses could be even greater due to the majority of sales being calves exported to the U.S. Mainland, which experienced a major disruption when cattle shipments were canceled due to the pandemic.
If this crisis has taught us one thing, it’s that reliance on just-in-time delivery and importing 90% of our food can lead to widespread hunger. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, this gamble has left our state, like many other parts of the world, facing a second curve to “flatten” – that of food insecurity.
Adding to the challenge were sky-rocketing unemployment rates and intensifying fears.
Starting in April, food banks and other non-profits began to experience significantly diminished funds and donations from their usual sources — not to mention other challenges unique to these times, such as having to outbid other food banks and grocers across the country due to demand for long shelf-life goods and consumer hoarding.
But despite these examples of devastating financial losses and uncertainty, it was inspiring to see local food growers and producers throughout Hawaii step up to support struggling families.
Local farmers, ranchers, food banks, and service non-profits joined together to feed Hawaii families on an immense scale. New connections, relationships and networks were formed in response to disrupted food supply networks.
We at Ulupono Initiative have been long-time advocates for increasing local food production for Hawaii. In response to the crisis, we expedited grant support through our Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation to help the Hawaii Farm Bureau Foundation support our island farmers, along with non-profit organizations that purchase food from those farmers. We extend our gratitude to others who joined us in providing — and continuing to provide — critical infusions of funds to support ag production and distribution when most needed. The result is not only helping during the crisis and recovery, but it increases long-term food security and resilience in Hawaii.
The following are just a few examples of the great work happening throughout our community.
The Aloha Harvest was established in 1999 to rescue quality food that’s donated and deliver it free of charge to social service agencies feeding hungry people in Hawaii. It partnered in March with Chef Hui, a network of chefs and restaurant industry workers, and Pacific Gateway Center to get meals to keiki, kupuna and families in need. Farmers who rely on consistent demand from the food industry were faced with having to throw away fields of perishable produce that now have no buyers (This echoed similar instances outside of Hawaii, like milk dumping). Initially, its efforts focused on getting volunteers to glean these fields and deliver produce to recipient agencies. By April, grant support helped the organization launch the second phase consisting of buying excess produce from farmers and sending the ingredients where they’ll be used to prepare meals for the hungry.
Hawaii Foodbank forged a new and, hopefully, long-lasting relationship with the Hawaii Farm Bureau. Grant funds enabled Hawaii Foodbank to expand staff resources to manage purchasing, inventory and procurement of food products from local farmers. In a typical month, Hawaii Foodbank purchases roughly $33,000 in food. Over a four-week period during the crisis, it made $640,000 in purchases to keep up with spiking demand. Its first order with the Farm Bureau consisted of 5,000 pounds of local produce (bok choy, sweet potato, long beans, squash and papaya). The second order grew to 10,000 pounds (papaya, bananas, watercress, long beans, avocado, taro, orange/tangerines, sweet potato, cucumber and eggplant).
On Oahu’s west side, the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center likewise saw a significant increase in need during the pandemic. In response to the shutdown of schools by the Hawaii Department of Education, the center began a keiki emergency feeding program due to the urgent need in the Waianae community. The center applied grant funds toward providing freshly prepared meals to families in need. By mid-April, the health center had served 32,800 meals (20% of meals include local ingredients), distributed 23,000 pounds of local produce, and another 100,000 pounds of shelf-stable canned foods.
On Hawaii Island, The Food Basket experienced canceled or reduced orders for food imports with long order lead time — some up to three weeks out. Grant support and donations helped ramp up its DA BUX Double Up Food Bucks program that doubles the value of benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) spent on local produce at participating retail grocers. By working with the Hawaii Good Food Alliance and the Hawaii Department of Human Services, the pilot program empowers low-income consumers to eat healthy food, helps local farmers sustain their operations, and promotes more local food production in Hawaii. The Food Basket distributed 500,000 pounds of food (75,000 pounds local produce) in March, which is three times the normal volume, with 70% of clients having never used a food bank before. It also formed a partnership with restaurants for the ready-to-eat frozen meals distributed at Ohana drops, including local produce to help keep both restaurants and food growers afloat. This included tens of thousands of pounds of ulu (breadfruit, steamed and frozen) matched in pounds by sweet potato (steamed and frozen).
These and more local organizations have done great work, but the immediate need remains. Farmers and non-profits are carrying a heavy load, struggling to feed those our local and state governments are unable to reach. They need our help now in response to this crisis — and to make Hawaii more resilient against the next one.
Please join us in donating to these worthy organizations.
The Food Basket, Hawaii Island’s Food Bank
Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center