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Cultivating a Food Network

Like much of the state, Molokai imports most of the food found in its grocery stores, restaurants and schools — about 98 percent. Many Molokai residents are ready for a change and want more locally-grown foods available. That was the message received Wednesday night at Sust`aina ble Molokai’s Food Hub meeting.

Based on the Agricultural Needs Assessment survey conducted by Sust`aina ble Molokai in 2012, 90 percent of residents surveyed said they prefer to buy Molokai-grown food products, and 98 percent answered, “Yes, I would eat more local food if it was available.”

There’s a solution to that demand, said Sust`ainable Molokai Food Hub Coordinator Harmonee Williams. The food hub will facilitate distribution of local products and increase supply and consumption through education and outreach – a goal it is already accomplishing.

“The food hub is not a new idea,” Williams said. “The Molokai community has been talking about this for years so we feel fortunate to be able to take that idea and move it forward.”

A regional food hub is a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand, according to a 2012 USDA report. It’s part of a national trend of people wanting to eat more local foods, know their farmers and live healthier lives, Williams said. There are about 230 registered food hubs in the U.S.

“The overall response we’ve received is that we need an on-island distribution center,” Williams said. “We really want this to be based on community input and… servicing Molokai needs.”

Paddlers Inn restaurant manager Kama Hoe said the restaurant uses produce from Pu`u O Hoku Ranch and Barking Deer Farm and gets shrimp from Keawa Nui Farms for their menu. Paddlers Inn’s “Featured Farmers” list shares who produced the food, how and puts a face to the product, Hoe said. The food hub plans to have similar labeling.

“We need to be more dependent on the island and farmers instead of on the barge,” Hoe said. “It keeps our money here. If everyone is dependent on each other, we’ll become a better community.”

Not-Too-Distant Goals

Kate Cherrington, board member of nonprofit Ka Honua Momona, agreed. She said Hua Parakore, an indigenous verification and validation food system in New Zealand, driven by Te Waka Kai Ora (National Maori Organics Authority of Aotearoa), labels products, providing credibility, which can be done on Molokai.

“People these days want to know the story of the places their food is sourced from,” Cherrington said. “They’re crying out for some kinds of connection and community-wellness components to their lives. This group is catching that wave.”

Food hub organizers anticipate having farmers bring fresh produce in the morning and distributing to stores and restaurants by the end of the day.

However, Molokai Livestock Coop’s Randy Cabreros said based on past experience working at a grocery store, meeting consumer demands can be a challenge, and suggested having a way to store produce longer.

“A warehouse [to store large quantities of food] is necessary to meet Molokai’s demands,” he said.

The food hub will have a packaging center, and once more funding is granted, a certified kitchen and chiller will be introduced, Williams said.

Molokai’s Food Hub was awarded a grant in February from the First Nations Development Institute, an American Indian institute that helps strengthen and revitalize the economies of Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities.

Since being awarded the grant, Sust`ainable Molokai was able to leverage funding through an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign for the bamboo structure that will be used as a packaging center for the food hub in their permaculture farm in Ho`olehua. A Demand Study to evaluate what foods are purchased in Molokai stores is already in process. Farmers will be shown the quantity of produce Molokai consumes and how much food is needed to meet the demand, Williams said.

Local Produce in Local Schools

While the physical infrastructure of the food hub is still in development, the food hub as an organization, led by its members, is already making strides. Molokai Food Hub is a vendor for USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) that will provide free locally-grown produce to island schools. Separate from the USDA school lunch program already available to many students on Molokai, the federally-funded FFVP pays local farmers to supply fresh fruits and vegetables in selected low-income elementary schools nationwide. Starting next month, this program will be available for the first time on Molokai at Maunaloa Elementary School.

Tika Kekahuna, Molokai High School cafeteria manager, will lead distributing food to the school. She said Maunaloa Elementary’s 60 students will be served Molokai-grown produce as healthy snack options two to three times a week through the FFVP.

“I want to make sure [the farmers] can provide us with enough fruits and vegetables,” Kekahuna said. “I want to keep the money here on Molokai and give it back to the farmers. That’s my intention.”

The program begins in October and will be available Tuesdays and Thursdays. Farmers will sell through the food hub and a pricelist will be set. Maunaloa is just a first step; according to Williams, every Molokai elementary school qualifies for FFVP.

“When it’s successful, we can get the other elementary schools to sign up,” Williams said. “We can show them a good model then all the kids on island can eat local a couple times a week. We have a chance to lead the state with the program and everyone is cheering us on.”

For more info, contact Williams at 560-5410.

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