Hawaii’s meals hubs discover energy in numbers

April 26, 2021

A bright spot in the COVID-19 pandemic was how the virus catapulted food centers in Hawaii to popularity.

Now, nationwide food hubs are working together to help each other grow successfully by sharing resources, advice, complaints, monetary opportunities, and of course, groceries. They are trying to build capacity to meet the growing demands of businesses, institutions and families who want bespoke orders for locally grown food.

“It’s basically like a food center support group,” said Saleh Azizi of the Kahumana Farm Hub in Waianae.

Food hubs are distribution networks that buy, market and sell local ingredients to grocers, schools, food banks, small businesses and families, while the local farmers can focus on farming.

Though state lawmakers deferred a Food Hub Hui bill that would have provided government funding to develop new food centers or expand existing ones, several Hui members say they are disappointed but not deterred. The legislative process has helped strengthen their relationships with one another and increase their successes as individual hubs and collectively as an alternative food distribution system that does not deal with food imports.

More and more food hubs across Hawaii are working together. By working together, the members of the Food Hub Hui improve access to local food and support the farmers. Cory Lum / Civil Beat

“During COVID, the connectivity between our food hubs was such that I could get avocados through the Adaptation Food Hub in Kona if I didn’t have enough available in Waianae, or I could order something else that I might need Food center on Kauai, “said Azizi.

In total, the 14-strong Food Hub Hui supports around 1,100 Hawaiian farmers across the island chain, Azizi said.

This includes both professional growers and backyard hobbyists.

Joell Edwards, Natalie Nishioka and Leighalei Sevellino with items from the Malama Kauai Food Hub program. Allan Parachini / Civil Beat

But hui members say more funding is needed to support food hubs as the demand for their services is greater than ever. In 2020, for example, the Kahumana Farm Hub in Waianae was handing out around 800,000 pounds of local groceries – a four-fold increase from 2019.

“Almost all of us need money for the infrastructure,” said Megan Fox, who led the launch of a food hub on Kauai late last year as a project for the Malama Kauai nonprofit organization. “Whether we’re just starting out or have been in business for years, we are all growing fast and all need to scale to meet demand.”

Food hubs also need to expand their capacities to educate consumers that consuming more local food doesn’t necessarily cost more, Fox said.

“I often hear that local food costs more and that can put off a lot of people on a budget,” said Fox.

“There are bougie farmers markets where a single dragon fruit costs $ 7,” she said. “But you can get a bag of products for $ 25 from (our grocery center) – and with Da Bux (coupons) it’s $ 12.50. There is no way to go to a grocery store and get this amount of products for this little money. “

And since some consumers don’t have the time or skill to prepare a meal from a bag of raw ingredients, food centers also need more financial assistance to convert their crops into products like taro chips, spreads, and salad dressings, according to Fox.

Food hubs also reduce waste

Hawaii’s Food Hubs connect with a diverse group of food producers and consumers.

In Kauai, where the nonprofit Malama Kauai opened a food center less than a year ago to improve access to nutritious, locally grown food, nearly 60% of customers are families on some form of government food aid, according to Fox, Malama, according to Fox, Malama rely on Kauai’s CEO.

Part of the fledgling food center’s mission is to help locals suffering from food insecurity eat well while supporting local producers, she said. Commercial customers are also to be won this summer.

Hawaii’s food hubs sell high quality, local ingredients and value-added products to a wide variety of buyers including families, food banks, hospitals, breweries, bakeries and ice cream companies. Kuʻu Kauanoe / Civil Beat

In Waianae, Kahumana Farm Hub’s primary customer is a local food bank. The Food Hub supports traditional farmers, but it also routinely makes one-off purchases from backyard farmers who find they have too much soursop or breadfruit to eat. According to Azizi, these are foods that would otherwise spoil.

“It creates an incentive for people to take care of their trees,” said Azizi. “I’ve had everything from a wealthy person to a homeless person sold (the food center). It’s really all about the quality of the food. Personally, I’m not trying to put up more barriers.”

In 2020, Waianae Food Center sold nearly 30,000 pounds of dragon fruit, Azizi said. Half came from a farmer and the other half from about 50 farmers, he said.

This way, even inexperienced farmers can get their crops on hospital lunches or on whole foods shelves by joining a grocery hub. And it helps the smallest growers compete on economies of scale by bypassing barriers from large retail customers who need large and consistent amounts of food.

“The food center is really there for farmers to unload their entire harvest from a single source and not have to go to multiple buyers and negotiate prices,” said Azizi. “This is to avoid that every farmer and every business has to be in contact with one another. If you turn to the Food Hub instead, you have access to 200 farmers whom you can support with your purchases. “

A “silver lining” from COVID-19

Long before the term was coined, Maureen Datta founded a food center in 1990 as an extension of her herb and product farm in South Kona.

The company was born out of a desire to meet the demands of restaurants looking to purchase fresh, high quality ingredients grown on Hawaiian soil. She hired friends to grow various types of products that she bundled with her own harvest to sell and distribute directly to chefs in high-end resorts.

As the grocery center added new buyers – grocers, schools, breweries, bakeries, a chocolate shop – it grew from a collaboration of three core farmers on the Big Island to more than 100 different farmers and gardeners across the country.

“Now when we say ‘Food Hub’ people know what we are talking about.” – Maureen Datta, Big Island farmer

The Food Hub also includes a CSA program that regularly distributes bespoke boxes of local fruits and vegetables to local families – a service that gained importance during the pandemic when some people felt safer to get food from a contactless delivery or pick-up service to buy as a grocery store.

In six weeks at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the customer base for the food centre’s CSA program grew from approximately 125 families to 475.

As the virus closed many farmers’ markets, restaurants, and hotels, more farmers joined the food center and increased supplies to meet increasing demand.

“I think it’s one of those silver linings from COVID that people have found there is a functional local food system that is fun, convenient, and varied to work with, and 100% fresh and local,” Datta said , growing crops like cinnamon, coffee, avocados and edible flowers on her family’s 7 hectare certified organic farm since 1979.

“I don’t see people going back,” she said. “Every day we see new families signing up.”

Although food center legislation failed, Datta said it helped publicly highlight the resilience of the local farming sector.

“It allowed us to get our message across and become more of a household name. So when we say ‘food center’ people now know what we are talking about, ”Datta said. “The state of Hawaii is a huge market just sitting there and buying processed mainland goods, and it would be beneficial to our people if the state turned to the region to produce what we need – and food centers are one example Therefore. “

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