Eat Local

The many challenges of taking the Locavore Challenge

If you live in the Hawaiian Islands long enough, you’ll the familiar mantra about food insecurity. We simply don’t produce much food here, and for the past century or more, the focus of Hawaiʻi agriculture was centered on producing products en masse for the export market—mainly sugar and pineapples. Global competition with Southeast Asia and other areas where cheap land, cheap labor, and lax regulation make it difficult for our products to compete causing those industries to collapse.

Makawao food activist Lauryn Rego and her daughter Ember are committed locavores. Image by Dan Collins

Much of that unplanted agricultural land on Maui is now under the stewardship of Mahi Pono, the local branch of a Mainland-based conventional farming company funded largely by Canadian investment firms. They have given assurances that they will help to alleviate our food insecurity by producing crops for the local market, as well as for export. So far, we’ve seen many acres of citrus trees planted and a token number of “canoe plants,” the staples carried to Hawaiʻi by early Polynesian settlers, like ulu (breadfruit), kalo (taro), sweet potatoes and coconut palms. But it remains to be seen how much their infusion of locally grown produce will impact the market. Concerns about pesticide use and a lack of transparency by the company disrupted distribution of an early potato crop and sparked debate about residual chemistry in the soil. In the end, the potatoes tested negative for chemical residue. 

With all of this in mind, and fresh off the frustrating battle over Monsanto’s heavy use of pesticides and herbicides in their experimental fields of genetically modified corn north of Kihei, activist Lauryn Rego set out to become less reliant on imported foods and more dedicated to local farmers almost a decade ago. She decided to try to live for a short time eating only food grown and produced in Hawaiʻi. 

She committed to spending one week eating only locally grown food. Nothing containing imported ingredients. Nothing produced elsewhere and packaged here. At first, she did it for herself, but when she began to talk about it with her circle of food-activist friends, the idea blossomed, which led her to attempt her first Locavore Challenge in 2013. 

Rego created a Facebook Group, EAT LOCAL MAUI! Soon she was mother hen to a community several hundred strong. Today, members number almost 5,000. The latest week-long Locavore Challenge took place in October. Next year, she’s considering doing them quarterly, to highlight the island’s seasonal produce. 

“If you do it for seven days, there’s no better way to learn all the pukas in our food system,” said Rego.

Spoiler alert: It’s not easy! While certain things are abundant here—like avocados, bananas, mangoes, guavas, and papayas—to the point where much of it goes unharvested, many staples simply aren’t produced in Hawai‘i. Good luck finding locally grown wheat flour, rice, butter, chicken, or olive oil on your neighborhood store shelves. 

Image by Dan Collins

Dairy is a huge challenge, according to Rego, in part due to prohibitions on raw milk. Pasteurization requires specialized equipment that isn’t affordable without the economy of scale that large commercial dairies enjoy. In the 1970s, Hawaiʻi was self-sufficient in eggs and milk, supporting 240 egg farms and 120 milk operations. Today there are about 100 egg farms and only one dairy.

Wheat flour isn’t produced here at all, so you have to substitute ulu flour, green banana flour, or coconut flour. We no longer grow rice in Hawaiʻi. Olive oil is available once a year from Pueo Farms. Black peppercorns are grown by one farm on the Big Island, Rego said, but they only share it with a small community there. (Crushed dried papaya seeds provide a passable alternative.) Even locally produced salt is hard to find, and expensive when you can. Rego and her little girl look forward to receiving an annual shipment of sea salt gifted to them by friends on Kaua‘i. 

Fresh poultry is hard to come by, too. At one point, desperate for a protein-rich meal, Rego actually caught, killed, plucked, and butchered a feral chicken  for dinner. She doesn’t recommend it. 

Now she’s found a local farmer who sells pasture-raised free-range chickens on a small scale. Korey Harris started Simple Roots poultry in Makawao to feed his own kids. “We wanted to raise our own meat birds, and we had a couple of other family and friends who wanted to get in on it, as well,” he said. “So, we were going to get all this infrastructure and all this equipment, might as well try and see if other people might be interested.” His first harvest was a small batch of 75 birds, which they advertised on social media and sold out in a couple of days. 

He’s since ramped up the operation to about 420 birds per harvest. “Nobody else was doing it here, so we figured we’d try to fill that void and give the community a better quality chicken.” said Harris. 

But in a world where Costco will sell you a chicken that’s already seasoned and cooked for under $5, that local bird comes at a steep price. A five-pound raw chicken will set you back about $35. Keep in mind, it’s been raised outdoors on a natural diet, so it’s a far healthier and more nutrient-rich.  

Part of what makes locally grown food better isn’t easily measured, but Harris asserted that, “Any time you know the first name of the person that produced your food, it’s going to be a better-quality product.” 

Eating local is a compromise. You can’t get everything you want. And oftentimes the locally produced product has a much higher price tag. 

“It’s interesting, because I came into the work really eating organic, and trying to get these things [GMOs and chemicals] out of our food supply,” Rego recalled. “And what happens when you go to eat local, a lot of times, is you’re choosing to spend a dollar more on a product that’s conventional. The imported organic is sometimes a dollar or two less. But the benefit of spending that extra dollar and keeping it in our community is more important to me.” 

What are the benefits of eating local? 

Image by Dan Collins

Improved health is among the more obvious. Eating local typically means consuming more fresh greens and vegetables, healthy protein sources, and nutrient-dense seasonal fruits. You’ll find very little in the way of preservatives in a locavore’s diet. They typically consume less pesticide residue, as well. Plus, there’s the simple fact that if you buy directly from the farmer, fewer hands have touched your food. That became a real selling point during the recent pandemic.

Economically speaking, it makes sense to try to keep our consumer spending in Hawaiʻi in order to support the local economy. According to the Increased Food Security and Self-sufficiency Strategy published by the Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism, replacing just 10 percent of the food we import would amount to an additional $313 million staying in the state. It’s also important to keep farming here viable and flourishing so that our prime agricultural lands aren’t lost to development. 

Perhaps most importantly in a land so far from the rest of society, becoming more self-sufficient will better prepare us for disruptions to our vulnerable food-distribution system. For those of us who see global climate change as a threat to our survival, buying local food reduces packaging and transportation costs and dramatically shrinks your food’s carbon footprint.

Rego credits the COVID-19 pandemic for fueling her obsession with locally grown produce, because the extra time and uncrowded stores enabled her to read labels and really examine what it means to source your food locally. She said that folks trying to avoid crowded grocery stores due to the risk of transmission flocked to the EAT LOCAL MAUI! group. Her 2020 Locavore Challenge was huge. 

“Suddenly everybody wanted to do it, because they were avoiding stores,” she recalled. To facilitate the challenge and add a layer of fun for kids involved, Rego created bingo cards, with each square suggesting a tiny challenge, like “Plant something edible,” “Try a new local fruit,” “Eat a local potato or squash.” 

“Each one of those experiences adds a new layer of perspective and builds community,” Rego said. One simply reads, “Thank a farmer.” But in order to do that, you have to find one. “So, that leads people to the farmers markets or inspires them to take farm tours.”

Lots of local food never makes it to a store. Small backyard farms tend to barter with other small growers, or sell to niche markets. To become part of that economy, you have to have something to share, so Rego exhorts people to “plant something, grow something, share something.” 

Back to my first challenge, when I’d walk away from all these grocery stores and I’d go ‘Oh my God, I spent three hours in here and I left with three ingredients. How the f**k am I going to eat?’” she recalled. “People would come over, ‘I have this, I have this, I have this. Here, I have some venison. Here I have this in my backyard. Here I have some kalo.’” 

To help out, Sarah Pajimola of the Maui Backyard Farm Swap, which facilitates sharing of produce from local gardens, does a special swap for challenge participants. Another friend of Rego’s, Jen Karaca, started the Common Ground Collective to harvest unused backyard fruit for use by the community. The Maui Food Hub is another aggregator of local farm products. Farmers post what they have available weekly and members place their orders directly. Then all of the items can be picked up at the Hub. Okoa Farms offers a similar pre-ordering program, but they deliver to your door, or you can pick up your order at the Upcountry Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Some of the island’s best produce is only grown for the restaurant market, though, so the only ones enjoying its bounty are wealthy visitors from other places. When all of the island’s restaurants shut down, those growers brought their goods to the farmers’ markets and roadsides. 

“If there was a silver lining to the pandemic,” said Rego, “I think it really elevated our community’s consciousness about what food supply we have on our island, fortifying our food supply for the future and looking at alternative economies outside the tourism model.”

Rego’s daughter Ember, 6, began participating in the full challenge when she was four. “It’s really hard,’” said Ember. “It’s hard to get everything you want, really, because sometimes Maui doesn’t have it.” This is even true of one of the staples she’s relied on since she was a baby—poi. But that’s partly because she doesn’t like the kind that comes in the plastic bag. Too sour.

So far, Lauryn has organized 11 of these challenges, typically lasting a week, but some as long as 30 days. She even put together a little recipe book gleaned from participants. However, as committed as she is, she’s glad when the challenge is over and she can enjoy bread and milk again.

“It’s not realistic to do 100 percent all the time,” she admitted. “It’s about realizing where we’re at, finding solutions, and building a secure food future.”

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Dan Collins