Our Local Forager in Hawai’i: the Realities of Paradise

Find out how traditional food systems are being rebuilt in Hawai'i after generations of exported monoculture crops.

Keiki Portabello

Claire Sullivan is the Purchasing and Public Affairs coordinator for our Hawai’i stores.The Hawaiian Islands are smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles away from the closest land mass. Our tropical climate enables a yearlong growing season and our many microclimates – created by mountains rising from sea level to 13,000 feet – allow a wide diversity of plants to thrive here. Naturally, we grow an abundance of fresh produce and have more local food than we know what to do with. Right?

Unfortunately the reality is quite different. Hawaii grows only 10-15% of the food consumed here, with the remaining 85-90% imported by boat and airplane from distant sources. It wasn’t always this way. Before contact with the West, Hawai`i was home to self-sustaining Native Hawaiian communities who developed sophisticated agricultural and aquaculture systems. Soon after contact with the West, the majority of Hawai`i’s arable land was transformed into a monocultural plantation system dedicated to producing sugar and pineapple for export – a system which later collapsed when faced with new global markets. Fortunately, in the past twenty years a new generation of farmers, a multitude of chefs dedicated to using fresh and local produce, and proliferating farmers markets have coalesced into a movement intent on increasing the volume and variety of Hawai`i grown and made food.

Cloud Cover Coffee

In 2008, Whole Foods Market® prepared to open our first Hawai`i store on the island of O`ahu, and I took on the exciting responsibility of building our local sourcing program in the islands. For the past five years, our Hawai`i team has fostered relationships with farmers and producers, and in turn facilitated our community’s access to local goods. I love this work because sourcing locally contributes to the economic, social, cultural and ecological vitality of my home and my community. It also helps Whole Foods Market succeed and contribute to our broader mission of supporting whole foods, whole people and a whole planet.

We now partner with more than 280 local farmers and producers to supply our three stores in Hawai`i, and more than 43% of the produce we sell is grown in Hawai`i. Last year we purchased over $4 million worth of agricultural products from Hawai`i ranches, dairies, farms and apiaries, helping to grow our economy and perpetuate our rural and green spaces. Here are three stories that illustrate the power of local sourcing in Hawai`i.

MA`O Organic Farms is a social enterprise rooted in Hawaiian values that provides youth interns with an opportunity to learn organic farming while funding their attendance at a nearby community college and matching interns’ savings. Since we began purchasing MA`O’s organic produce, the farm has more than tripled in acreage, expanded their food production and contributed to the cultural, social, economic and dietary health of its region. This farm is at the heart of the food sovereignty movement in Hawai`i, addressing the legacy of our tumultuous past by taking responsibility for nourishing the community and investing in future generations of land stewardship.   

MA`O Organic Farms

Maili Moa is a second generation egg farm whose owners were considering closing up shop due to high feed costs. We encouraged them to instead transition to a cage free operation to differentiate their product. This shift required significant investment, so we committed to sell their eggs in our three stores and also use them in our stores’ kitchens. Two years later, Maili Moa continues to expand and now supplies one of our local bakery partners, La Tour, with eggs for quiches they bake for our stores. Such mutually supportive relationships are integral to a robust local food system.

Paepae O He`eia is a nonprofit organization restoring an ancient Hawaiian fishpond – one of just a few remaining examples of the centuries-old method of aquaculture that was integral to the Hawaiian diet. As they repair the pond so they can start raising fish, Paepae harvests limu, invasive edible seaweed that we use in our seafood departments’ poke recipes. Paepae also provides youth with educational opportunities and internships, and is partnering with the state and university to write regulations that will enable them to develop the state’s first commercial oyster operation.

With each partnership we develop with a local producer, we contribute to the growth of a food system in Hawai`i that creates multifaceted wealth in our community. And to cap it off, we get to share the delicious fruits of these partnerships with our customers!

What’s your favorite Hawai’ian food? Have you ever visited our stores in Hawai’i? Tell me in the comments below.

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