A ray of hope in the COVID-19 pandemic was how the virus catapulted Hawaii Food Hubs to popularity.
Now, food hubs across the state are working together to help each other grow successfully. They share resources, advice, handles, grant money 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 hub 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, allowing local farmers to focus on farming.
Although state lawmakers postponed a Food Hub Hui bill that would have provided government funding to develop new or expand existing food centers, several Hui members say they are disappointed but not deterred. The legislative process has helped cement their relationships with one another, boosting their success as individual hubs and collectively as an alternative food distribution system that does not deal with food imports.
“During COVID, the connectivity between our food hubs was such that I could get avocados through the Adaptations Food Hub in Kona if I didn’t have enough in Waianae, or I could order something else that I might need at the food center 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 gardening hobbyists.
But Hui members say more funds are needed to support food hubs as the demand for their services is greater than ever. In 2020, for example Kahumana Farm Hub About 800,000 pounds of local food was distributed in Waianae – a four-fold increase from 2019.
“Almost all of us need funding for infrastructure,” said Megan Fox, who led the Malama Kauai nonprofit project to launch a food center in Kauai late last year. “Whether we are just starting out or have been around for years, we are all growing rapidly and all need to scale to meet demand.”
Food hubs also need to expand their capacity to educate consumers that eating more local foods doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive, 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 Food Hub) – and with Da Bux (vouchers) it’s $ 12.50. There is no way you can go to a grocery store and get this amount of products for that small amount of money. “
And since some consumers don’t have the time or skill to prepare a meal from a bag of raw materials, food hubs also need more financial support to convert their crops into products like taro chips, sandwich 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 launched a food hub less than a year ago to improve access to nutritious, locally grown food, according to Fox, Malama, nearly 60% of customers are families who rely on some Kauai’s CEO is in need of government food aid.
Part of the young food center’s mission is to help food insecure locals eat well while supporting local producers, she said. Commercial customers are also to be won this summer.
In Waianae, Kahumana Farm Hub’s primary customer is a local food bank. The Food Hub supports traditional farmers but also routinely makes one-off purchases from horticulturalists who find they have too much soursop or breadfruit to eat. This is food that, according to Azizi, would otherwise spoil.
“It creates an incentive for people to take care of their trees,” said Azizi. “I had everything from a rich person to a homeless person selling products to (the food center). It’s really all about the quality of the food. Personally, I’m not trying to create more barriers. “
In 2020, the Waianae Food Hub sold nearly 30,000 pounds of dragon fruit, Azizi said. Half came from one farmer and the other half from about 50 farmers, he said.
This way, by joining a food center, even inexperienced farmers can get their crops on lunch dishes in the hospital or on Whole Foods shelves. And it helps the smallest growers compete on economies of scale by bypassing barriers from large retail customers who require large and consistent amounts of food.
“The food center is really there for farmers who have a one-stop shop to unload their entire crop and don’t have to go to multiple buyers and negotiate prices,” said Azizi. “Avoid having to connect every farmer and business to each other. If you turn to the grocery center instead, you will have access to 200 farmers to assist you with your purchases. “
A “silver lining” from COVID-19
Long before the term was coined, Maureen Datta started a food hub in 1990 to expand her herb and grower farm in South Kona.
The company was born out of a desire to meet the demands of restaurants looking to buy fresh, high quality ingredients made in Hawaii. She hired friends to grow different varieties of produce that she bundled with her own harvest to sell and distribute directly to chefs in high-end resorts.
As the grocery hub 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 state.
“Now when we say ‘Food Hub’ people know what we are talking about.” – Maureen Datta, Big Island farmer
The food center also includes a CSA program that regularly distributes bespoke boxes of local fruits and vegetables to local families – a service that has grown in importance during the pandemic when some people have felt safer to get groceries during a contactless delivery or service Pick up service than buying at a grocery store.
Over six weeks at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the customer base of the Food Hub’s CSA program grew from around 125 families to 475.
As the virus closed many farmers markets, restaurants, and hotels, more farmers joined the food center and increased supply to meet growing demand.
“I think it’s one of those silver linings from COVID that people have found there is a functioning local food system that is pleasant to work with, that is convenient, varied, and that is 100% fresh and local,” Datta said her family has been growing crops such as cinnamon, coffee, avocados and edible flowers on the 7 acre certified organic farm Adaptations since 1979.
“I don’t see any people back,” she said. “Every day we see new families signing up.”
Despite the failure of the food center legislation, Datta has helped to publicly demonstrate the resilience of the local agricultural sector.
“It has allowed us to get our message out and become more of a household word. So when we say ‘food hub’ people now know what we are talking about,” said Datta. “The state of Hawaii is a huge market that just sits there and buys processed goods from the mainland. It would be beneficial to our people if the state turned to the region to produce what we need – and food hubs are one example. ”
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