Massive container ships steam into the Port of Honolulu continually carrying the 6 million pounds of food shipped everyday to feed our state’s 1.4 million residents and 8 million annual visitors. Barges travel between the islands. Cargo planes land packed with fresh fruit and other perishables that wouldn’t survive the 2,500-mile ocean voyage. This is the world’s most isolated chain of islands, and Hawaii imports nearly 90 percent of its food at a cost of more than $3 billion per year!
But there is a burgeoning local food movement in Hawaii that’s trying to reverse decades of dependence on imports. Here on Molokai we have a wonderful weekly service that aggregates locally grown foods from farmers, and offers them at strategic points on the island in between the weekend farmer’s market. It is known as Sustainable Molokai https://molokai.localfoodmarketplace.com/Index and I think it is great. The way it works is that after signing up, you get an email every Monday morning listing what will be available for pick up on Thursday. You place an order and it is waiting for you at one of two delivery points (soon to add more) on the island.
A Little History
The first food imported to Hawaii arrived in the canoes of ancient Polynesians, who began to colonize the uninhabited islands sometime between 500 and 700 A.D. Onboard were the starchy staple taro (from which poi is made), sugarcane, sweet potatoes, coconuts, breadfruit, bananas, as well as pigs, and chickens. Those crops and others became the staples that, by the time of European contact in 1778, supported a population historians estimate at between 250,000 and 1 million. Without access to draft animals, wheels, or metal tools, the ancient Hawaiians prospered. Private land ownership was a foreign concept, but they developed a land division system called ahupua’a (from the words AHU for stone wall and PUA for pig) where land was divided into pie shaped areas that ran from the ocean to upland valleys. The Hawaiians harvested the bounty of the sea, grew taro and other crops on irrigated inland fields, and harvested forest products and hunted farther up. The ahupua’a produced enough food to leave even commoners with enough leisure time to surf!
Diseases introduced by Europeans decimated the native Hawaiians, so by the mid-19th century the ahupua’a had been replaced with vast American-owned sugarcane and pineapple plantations and cattle ranches. This new reality, and the business interests it represented contributed to the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, and the annexation of the islands in the 1890s.
By 1936, only 37 percent of Hawaii’s food supply was locally grown. Food imports soared in the ’60s when the advent of jet travel triggered a tourism boom that would become the mainstay of the Hawaiian economy. Laws and regulations have played a part as well. Here’s one example: local dairies supplied all of Hawaii’s milk up until the early 1980s when a federal court ordered the state to allow imports. The intent might have been to increase competition, but the result is that today most dairies are out of business and 86 percent of milk on store shelves comes from the mainland.
Seafood which sustained Hawaiians for millennia, is also now imported. Hawaii flies in about half of its seafood, mainly from Asia due to lower costs.
So why doesn’t Hawaii grow more of its own food? Just like on the mainland, globalization and free trade agreements have made some imported food cheaper than homegrown, even if it does have to be shipped across the world. For another thing, huge swaths of agricultural land remain locked up in now-defunct plantations. What farmland is available comes with hard-to-get and high-priced leases. Farmworkers are difficult to find, even without a border wall. So most farms are a family affair.
Hawaii’s climate is not hospitable to growing hay, wheat, rice or corn for cattle, but pasture does grow year-round, and Molokai now raises grass-fed cattle for sale at our local markets.
The last sugarcane crop was harvested this year on Oahu. Sugar’s reign lasted fewer than 150 years, but the impact is still keenly felt. Pineapple has a similar story. Much pineapple here today comes from Costa Rica.
My hat is off to the local farmers whose families work as an act of love and a connection to their ancestors and the land by producing food that is grown here, not flown here!