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The lure of local

Eat more veggies, build our future.

From the comfort of the family kitchen to the expectation that farms and markets will always be able to provide it, food is all about security, especially in our Islands, situated 2,500 miles away from any other source. We import 85–90 percent of our food, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture reported in 2008, and by now it’s “probably more than that, even getting worse,” says Ping Sun Leung, an agricultural economist at the University of Hawaii and coauthor of an influential study about Hawaii food self-sufficiency–or rather, the lack therof.

Statistics, however, are limited for all sorts of reasons, including the dearth of figures for 2009 due to the layoff of the entire market analysis department at the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. But before you retreat to your spam hoard in despair, know that there is cause for cheer: The local produce sector outperformed the rest of local agriculture in 2007 and in 2008, comprising 34 percent of the produce bought in the Islands, as opposed to local’s overall 10–15 percent market share. Until he’s able to do a study of local vs. imported food, Leung’s gut feeling is that market share of Hawaii produce, particularly vegetables, will keep growing.

We’ve already come a long way. In the 1990s, consumers–who had driven the organic marketplace to a steady 20 percent annual growth rate–began demanding locally grown produce, which is healthier because it requires less pesticide, fewer preservatives and doesn’t have to be shipped. Buying local also keeps farms in business and money and jobs in communities, and protects agricultural lands, open space and our quality of life. In 2003, the Kapiolani Community College Farmers’ Market opened within walking distance of our home. Now there are six Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation farmers’ markets, which sell only local produce. “Consumer demand is definitely growing,” says HFBF’s Eleanor Nakama-Mitsunaga. There’s also a lot of anecdotal evidence that demand for, and sales of, local produce are steadily growing. “We used to sell $200 a day at the farmers’ market. Now we’re making $1,200–$1,500 in profit,” said Glenn Martinez, owner of Olomana Gardens, a permaculture farm. Martinez and other farmers, including Ka Lei eggs from Wahiawa and Otsuji Farm, which has grown organic produce in Hawaii Kai for 40 years, met with students, teachers and parents at the Punahou School Sustainability Fair last Friday.

“This year, we focused on small local farmers and [community supported agriculture groups], to get families to know they can go buy the food or order it through CSAs” said Carri Morgan, director of the school’s Luke Center for Public Service. Founders of the Haleiwa Farmers Market and two direct delivery CSAs–Kula Fields and Oahu Fresh–also attended the fair, and both owners said their young businesses are growing every week. So is attendance at the Haleiwa Farmers’ Market, which started up last spring with an average 1,000 visitors a week and now clicks 2,500–2,700 shoppers through its gate every Sunday from 9am–1pm, according to co-founder Pamela Boyar, who is opening a Hawaii Kai farmers’ market this month. Preliminary findings from a recent HFBF survey indicate that attendance at the KCC Greenmarket may have doubled in the past 5 years, from 3,000 to 6,000, Nakama-Mitsunaga says.

More signs of a trend with legs: Conventional supermarkets like Times are now paying attention to food-sourcing with their signage, and a Foodland Farms, with an emphasis on local, opened last month in ‘Aina Haina.

Now that there are glimmers of an economic recovery, including rising oil prices, Hawaii residents have more reason than ever to support local farms, since imported foods will reflect higher fuel prices. At peak oil prices in July 2008, comparison shoppers found that local produce, including organic, was cheaper to buy than imported. If each of us can replace just 10 percent of the foods we import with locally grown, we’ll plow $313 million back into our state economy and create 2,300 more jobs, Leung’s study found. “There’s an opportunity there,” he says, adding, “we need to raise the discussion so policy folks will support farmers, maybe with subsidies.”

Visitors want to eat well, too, and many desire a meaningful connection with local culture. With the Hawaii tourist industry down significantly last year, one bright spot in our economy has been an upsurge in agrotourism. On any Saturday, there’s a steady flow of foot traffic from Waikiki up the hill to KCC–also great practice for tsunami evacuation, incidentally. “We’re looking at what individuals can do to promote sustainability,” says Punahou’s Morgan. If we can each increase our purchase of local food by, say, 10 percent, making it more profitable to plant acreage in diversified farms and helping farmers to resist housing and resort development pressure, we’ll be that much closer to food security, and that much farther from panicked trips to Costco in the night.

Mindy Pennybacker will be signing her new book, Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple Everyday Choices, at Barnes & Noble Kahala, Sat, 4/17, 2-4pm, and at Native Books in Ward Warehouse Sun 4/18, 3-5pm.