Mauka to Makai

Mauka to Makai

One possible solution to our local food system

Mauka to Makai / Imagine: It’s Saturday morning. You take the kids and head down to your local farmers market to pick up your weekly box of fruits, vegetables, taro and sweet potatoes from your ahupuaa co-op. You were able to get add-ons of mahimahi, Island beef, eggs, milk, bread, ohelo berry jam, and Kona coffee to round out your meals for this week.

This envisioned ahupuaa co-op is an example of a multi-stakeholder co-op. You choose the farmers and fishermen and fair wages honor the ways they protect our common resources for the future.

“Exploring the Hawaiian relationship to the land reveals a service relationship; not the land serving people, but people serving the land,” says Sam Gon from The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii.

Multi–stakeholder Cooperative

More and more local residents envision living a modern ahupuaa lifestyle as a multi-stakeholder in a cooperative ecosystem. The multi-staker co-op makes sense for Hawaii. Many of us are worried that we are importing 85 percent of our food to the most remote island chain on the planet, when just 60 years ago we provided most of our own food. None of us like paying over $4/gallon for gas now, but we may not realize that food production and shipping require gas at every stage. Food is already expensive and will inevitably become more difficult to grow. Furthermore, we all know locally grown and produced food tastes better.

Who Feeds Whom?

We have 5,500 farmers in Hawaii, and some of them were able to make the transition to diversified family farms after the big plantations closed. But farming in Hawaii is expensive, and we must help farmers to reduce their costs for water and labor in order to sustain a robust local food system for our residents.

Cooperatives are a fast-growing segment of the eat-local food movement across the United States, largely because they are locally owned, democratically controlled and responsive to the community. Consumer food cooperatives like Kokua Market on King Street emphasize locally produced and processed foods.

An increase in the number of farmers cooperatives focused on processing and marketing are allowing more island-based, direct marketing initiatives, such as the Hawaii Cattle Producers Co-ops’ Cooperative, located in Kamuela, which arranges transportation and marketing services for local grass-fed beef sales. Online and on-the-ground food hubs are connecting local producers with wholesale buyers, such as schools, restaurants and supermarkets.

Who’s Invited

Providing a seat at the table for different stakeholders in the food system leads to a better understanding of the perspectives of others involved in the food system. Instead of competitive negotiations exclusively focused on cost, multi-stakeholder cooperatives tend to work toward the same mission and are more likely to consider all stakeholder perspectives. This group is often responsive to unique local needs and values. While still a new approach, it shows great promise for communities working together to meet their food needs in a cooperative business format, versus our current food system, which pits consumers against producers.

Around the Country

One multi-stakeholder cooperative, Producers & Consumers Cooperative, was sparked when a hospital in Wisconsin decided to put 20 percent of their food budget into the local food system. Their goal was healthier food for their patients and revitalization of the local rural economy. Their multi-stakeholder cooperative has farmers, processors, consumers, and the hospital in separate membership classes.

Maple Valley is a large maple syrup multi-stakeholder cooperative. They included producers, customers, investors, and employees in their membership classes. Each has specified roles and benefits. Weaver Street Market in North Carolina, Fifth Season Cooperative in Wisconsin and Oklahoma Food Co-op in Kansas are excellent examples of food system multi-stakeholder cooperatives.

Fortunately, the pieces are already in place in our ahupuaa. We can invite eaters, farmers, fishermen, ranchers, bakers and investors to organize the nuclei of viable food systems, bringing local and healthful food back into the everyday lives of our communities.

Melanie Bondera is a Rural Cooperative Development Specialist at Hawaii’s first cooperative development center, the Laulima Center, a program of The Kohala Center that opened in January 2011. She and her husband have been farming their certified organic farm in South Kona for the last decade. Visit [] to learn more about the Laulima Center and The Kohala Center.