Hawaii Needs Food Sustainability – First in Order is We Must Support our Farmers

Hawaii farmers deserve far more recognition for the work they do. Farming is one of the oldest and most important professions, but it’s an occupation that is unheralded. This needs to change because even before we begin to talk about supporting our farmers to help our state move closer to food security and food sustainability, we need to change our mindset to think that farming is critical to society. And farmers are just as heroic as others who provide “needs-based” work for our survival.

How so? It’s just as easy to import our food as we’ve been doing it for decades now, you might say.

The fact is Hawaii is food insecure and we’ve been fortunate not to have a full-blown crisis. The pandemic was a near food crisis that scared many isle residents. It wasn’t catastrophic. But it got many thinking that as an isolated set of islands, our dependence on imported food is grossly unbalanced.

Just think about these two facts: 1) 85-92% of Hawaii’s food is shipped into the state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; 2) at any given time, our state has about two weeks supply of fresh food. Clearly there is vulnerability.

During the pandemic and up until now, there is supply chain issues on the mainland impacting available inventory and spiking prices for practically all of Hawaii’s essentials. We have little control over our own food channels.

Our current food system of importing food has hurt us financially as well. Based on the Economic Policy Institute, Hawaii is paying the highest for food in the nation by a substantial amount.

A second food system: Locally grown food industry
It’s time that Hawaii prioritizes building a second food system to compliment the current imported system. That second food system is a strong industry of locally grown food. We’ve heard calls for building a local agricultural industry for decades. But it’s time that we be serious and act on it as if that food crisis could be happening in the next future pandemic or national emergency. We just don’t know when or what it could be. But we must be prepared.

Support our farmers
The basic building block to a healthy, vibrant and prosperous local food system is ensuring that we have enough farmers to produce the food we need.

The University of Hawaiʻi’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources conducted an interesting mental health survey. The survey found that 48% of farmers under the age of 45 years old experienced depression, and 14% struggled with suicidal thoughts. That’s nearly two times higher than the general population of Hawaiʻi, and 17% higher than the Centers for Disease Control’s 2021 report on public health workers.

In addition to the mental health aspect, what’s interesting about the study is it cites some of the causes leading to farmers depression. Here we can extract some of the support that farmers are actually needing.

Uncertainty, lack of control, financial stress, economic challenges, lack of support systems, lack of land access, problems with invasive species, and long hours and time management were some of the causes of depression for Hawaii farmers.

*SUPPORT EXTENSION AGENT PROGRAM. Specific to farmers lacking support, uncertainty and invasive species and financial stress, the University of Hawaii does support farmers and provides guidance to them in dealing with invasive species, new crops, new farming technology, ways to deal with climate change and teaching business skills, to name a few.

Farmers say they need more extension agents to help guide them. One extension agent at the University of Hawaii is the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (that conducted the mental health study). The College has undergone budgetary cutbacks and as a result lost 60 positions. That means less extension agents out in the field assisting farmers. We need to ensure that funding for extension programs and agents are secured.

*BUY LOCAL FOOD. It’s clear cut, buying Hawaii’s farmers products will help with some of their economic challenges, at least in boosting revenues that will help with their overhead costs. There are open markets, neighborhood farm markets, your favorite grocers that sell local food (you just have to look for them or ask employees). Some farms sell directly to customers. Spread the word to family and friends where you bought a local food product you really like.

Buying local food should also apply to establishments. It’s encouraging that hotels and restaurants are promoting and buying local food and ingredients. Schools are also buying more local food. Local farms are not able to meet fully the demands of institutional markets just yet, but just knowing how much demand there is will give farmers an idea of scale of growth needed to meet those demands.

*CONTINUE OFFERING GRANTS. The federal government is the largest supporter of grants to farmers. Local farmers must be resourceful to get these grants that are mostly administered by the state. It’s now easier for farmers because many grants moved away from writing a grant proposal to now simply filing out an application.

*SUPPORT FOOD HUBS. Food hubs are not just physical places where you can buy locally grown food like a farmers’ market. But many food hubs help farmers get their products to traditional commercial vendors like grocers, restaurants or to families by special order. Food hubs will play a critical role in building a locally grown food system because they take on the role of distribution and sales for farmers that rely on them. Remember another one of the causes for farmers depression above, time management. Food hubs enable farmers to spend more time farming.

Mabuhay to our farmers. We thank you for your invaluable work and hope you all have continued success.

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