Yesterday, Hawaii chefs, farmers, diners and concerned members of Hawaii’s food community gathered to talk about sustainability and the state of the local food supply at the Hawaii Food Forum. You can read one summary of it at KITV News. I knew that this was coming and wished that I could have been there to hear what was discussed. Following the panel last night, I read quite a bit of commentary online, hopeful about what might have taken place, but became disappointed as I read about the challenges voiced that I was already aware of. My thoughts are reeling as I see the conversation go on, and I hope that this inspires movement and change, but the question really is how. And who is going to take charge to lead a statewide intitative to further food independence?
I moved to Portland because I was frustrated in Hawaii. I was working in my mom’s grocery store, learning her 20 year-old business and watching her feed a neighborhood as gas costs rose and prices climbed. When I last worked there in 2006, I kept turning over organic products (almost all shipped in) and saw that many were made in Oregon. Granted, staple ingredients are much cheaper on the mainland, but the great chefs in Portland are committed to using as much local product as they can. Local can be limiting, but I believe it is the way to go. So I moved here, frustrated by the apathy that I saw in Hawaii at the time, to see how farm-to-table can work in a city.
Five years later, much has changed on Kauai (this is where I’m from, and what I know, not Maui or Oahu). Waipa Foundation fosters sustainability through farming and educational initiatives targeted at the surrounding Hawaiian community, farmers markets have increased in number and popularity, and there is more awareness about growing your own food when possible. Experiments have begun with restaurants growing their own vegetables such as 22 North, utilizing local product as they do at Oasis on the Beach and Hukilau Lanai, and farms opening restaurants in the case of the Common Ground non-profit. I go into Living Foods Market and am so excited to see that they are roasting their own coffee! Baking their own bread! Selling local cheese and honey! But the store and café are not crowded. And, well, it’s expensive.
High-end chefs have always championed the good stuff – Merriman, Roy, Alan Wong. I’m not going to pretend to know everything about the history of Hawaii Regional Cuisine as I went to college and became a diner on the mainland, not in Hawaii. After the Hawaii Food Forum yesterday, I read on Twitter that the one chef one farmer paradigm is over. I agree, that no, that’s not enough, but lets admit that Ed Kenney and Ma’o Farms together have made great strides to raise awareness of the flavor of locally grown produce and how that can elevate local restaurant cuisine. Not to mention the incredible example set forth for education and stewardship of the land in the case of Ma'o Farms. The importance of a chef to expose people to the beauty of the product growing in their own backyard (I had never eaten pepeiau mushrooms before having it in a pasta at Town), cannot be overstated.
But Hawaii does not have as widespread of a dining culture as metropolitan cities. Many people cook at home. So what’s the solution there? Buying mainland-grown staples will always be costly. Wheat will always be shipped in, and probably rice, unless Hawaii starts growing it in quantity again. Maybe then it’s supplementing what must be purchased with home gardens for vegetables and fruit. Akamai Backyard is an inspiring example. I’ve seen friends starting similar yard farms in Hawaii. But lets’ face it, not everyone has a green thumb or the time and skill to be a farmer (though I wish they taught that as an elective in public school). Is there a service like Your Backyard Farmer in Hawaii, where someone will come in and set up a food-producing garden for you that you only have to maintain? If not, I hope to see this someday. Just writing that is evidence of another challenge; I use the name “Hawaii” generally to talk about the entire state, but really each island is a distinct community unto itself with its own set of unique resources and obstacles.
There is no singular solution, this change has to come from a number of different directions. People need to appreciate local food, and know how to prepare it deliciously. Farmers need to be valued, agriculture, REAL agriculture, the kind of farms where people are growing FOOD for the community, need to be financially supported and protected by the state). And there are additional challenges posed by the presence, and business of multinational genetic engineering operations farming in the islands.
I write this from the perspective of a concerned child of Kaua’i, whose parents opened a store in the 70s in order to have a place to retail local produce on the island, who grew up on a working banana and papaya farm, whose grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins farmed and were involved in the Kauai County Farm Bureau and local ag for decades, and who now lives on the mainland, visits Hawaii only a couple of times a year and stays connected by following chefs on Twitter, reading Edible Hawaiian Islands (a beautiful publication that showcases local food, the people growing and cooking it, and how to prepare it yourself) and Hana Hou magazines. I don't claim to be a current part of Hawaii's food community, but with my family and friends there, I will always care about it.
Last time I visited Oahu this past January, I was with a friend - a Portland chef who specializes in Thai food. We went to Maunakea Market in Chinatown and were both impressed by the supply, vibrancy and freshness of the vegetables, seafood and meat sold by the vendors, most of which was locally grown and raised. This is the quality of produce he covets on the mainland and often has to buy from elsewhere. We really HAVE something in Hawaii, but it’s a matter of how to make people value it, crave it, grow more of it, pay for it, and afford it. I think that sustainability, self-sufficiency and fantastic flavor, is worth it.