By Carin Enovijas
When COVID-19 led to the shutdown of Maui’s restaurants and hotels, local agriculture advocates quickly recognized that the unique conditions imposed by the pandemic could help generate a new distribution network for local farmers.
Autumn Ness, director of Hawai’i Organic Land Management Program facilitated by the national non-profit, Beyond Pesticides, said she and a group of local agricultural proponents spent hours fielding calls from scores of farmers who were, “stuck with truckloads of spoiling produce with literally nowhere to go because there was no distribution stream in place.”
Ness noted that the concept of a food hub is not new. “This has been talked about for years in a lot of different ag circles. The will or the timing was just never really there.”
John Dobovan, owner of Kulahaven Farms, was President of the Haleakala Chapter of the Maui Farmers Union when he formed a working committee to start the process in 2019, “but it just had no traction at all,” he recalled.
In April of 2020, amidst a global pandemic, Dobovan and Ness, current president and vice-president of the Hub’s board of directors, were joined by a core group of determined leaders of Maui’s agriculture community who had both the motivation and the skill to successfully launch Maui’s first local food distribution hub.
The Maui Hub purchased their first batch of produce with a microloan from the Haleakala Chapter of the Maui Farmers Union, which they were able to pay back almost immediately. According to Ness, labor costs and a bare minimum of start-up funding was covered by $20,000 in grants from the Ceres Trust and the Healy Foundation.
The Hub started out cautious and small, with five or six vendors and an e-commerce site. Ivan Jacobs, owner of Sun Fresh Hawaii, a wholesale distributor with a client list of restaurants sidelined by COVID-19, provided the Hub with the necessary infrastructure: equipment, refrigeration, and labor. The Hub helped to keep Jacobs’ staff employed during the shutdown.
Collaboration is a cornerstone of the Hub’s mission. “In another time they could look at us as another competitor,” Ness said. Now that the wholesaler’s tourism-based clientele is regenerating, Ness is grateful for their partnership. “They support our mission and see what we are trying to do on the local food scene,” Ness said. “It’s very clear they want us to succeed.”
According to Dobovan, cost had always been the biggest obstacle in creating a viable food distribution system on Maui and across the islands prior to COVID-19. “We couldn’t have done it without Ivan’s help at Sun Fresh,” Dobovan said.
“From the first meeting to our first day of sales, there were only three weeks,” Ness explained. “We were afraid of being too successful and not being able to do the work. I think we started out with just lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, trout, and watercress. Today I counted, and we now have 55 vendors and we are growing every week.”
Dobovan described the first few weeks of distribution as simply “extraordinary.”
“It was amazing. One of the best experiences of my life,” Dobovan said. “What really caused this to happen was a recognition of all involved that even though it was a horrible moment in time—people were dying and people were so scared—yet at same time we all acknowledged that it was an opportunity to change the system. And the system needs to be changed.”
The Hub operates with customers placing online orders from Saturday to Tuesday. On Thursday, growers and producers deliver their products to the central hub and get paid on the spot. Orders are packed up on Friday. Pick-ups for the Lahaina area are scheduled on Fridays, while Saturday pick-ups are held in Kahului, Kihei, Pukalani, and Haiku.
Dobovan credited the customers and generous volunteers with building support and participation. “People were showing up, offering to donate money for people that couldn’t afford to buy groceries,” Dobovan recalled, “We used those donations to buy food to give away to the needy. It was such a warm and wonderful feeling of support and camaraderie.”
Maui Food Hub has recently added a home delivery option for South and Central Maui. A “Donation” button on the site still allows supporters to contribute to help grow Maui’s local food economy and to support families in need.
According to Ness, the Hub now averages $10,000 a week in sales. “We are maxed out at that amount because our current facility has a ceiling. When we move into our new facility that’s going to go through the roof.” Ness said discussions are underway, but details on the new location were not yet available.
The Hub employs 15 full and part-time staff members that perform jobs such as picking, packing, driving, procurement, quality control, farmer relations and intake, and accounting.
Ness said that each of the founding board members were uniquely instrumental in establishing the Hub’s operations, its core values, mission, and vision as a non-profit entity. In addition to Dobovan and Ness, founding board members include executive director Keith Ranney, treasurer and graphic artist Michelle Halcomb, and attorney Linda Love. Ness said Love was instrumental in getting the Hub’s 501c3 status and our approval to accept SNAP-EBT.
Within just five months of operation, Maui Hub obtained non-profit status and was approved by the USDA to accept SNAP-EBT benefits. In 2020, $60,000 of the Hub’s total revenue came from EBT sales that can be doubled in value by participation in “Da Bux Program,” which offers a 50 percent discount on purchases of local fruits and vegetables at select locations.
The Hub is looking forward to expanding soon into a facility with a commercial kitchen, which will help vendors create value-added products and new economic opportunities from any excess, unsold or “ugly” produce. “We are looking at promoting large-scale collaboration across the board,” Ness said.
Recently, the board was expanded to include Michael Wildberger, owner of Kihei Ice, and Emily Kuntz, co-owner of Choice Health Bars.
“We keep saying that we are a non-profit with a business model and the business model is not competition, it’s collaboration,” Ness said. “Mike and Emily have a lot of experience in growing locally-based, small businesses and scaling it up. They also have all the logistics experience.”
Wildberger demonstrated his logistical expertise when he took on the task of testing out home deliveries to South Maui, and subsequently adding Kahului to the delivery route.
“A small producer trying to get started really has five full-time jobs: growing, producing, adding value, marketing, and delivery,” Wildberger said. “The hub allows them to just focus on producing and opens them up to do more work with more skill.”
Wildberger said the Hub wants to help producers create new value-added products with the potential to become as popular and profitable as Kona coffee.
In addition to building local support, Wildberger hopes to promote the Hub to the 60,000 tourists arriving on Maui each month, offering home delivery to condos booked online.
“There’s a lot of ideas we can do with Maui Hub. The basic concept is to get local farmers growing and to increase sustainability so we can provide low-cost food for Maui residents,” said Wildberger.
The deep roots of food insecurity in the Hawaiian Islands highlight the Hub’s mission, “Supporting a renaissance of the local food economy by providing a distribution pathway from local farmers and food producers, direct to the public.”
Maui depends on shipping imports for more than 80% of its food supply. The interruption of shipping schedules often leads to shortages and price gouging, especially during weather-based emergencies, which will continue to increase in scale and scope due to climate change.
To effectively compete against multinational corporations, Dobovan noted that smaller farming operations often lose three or more days of production per week, in addition to labor costs and other expenses associated with the logistics of getting their products to market.
Both Ness and Dobovan believe Maui farmers can grow enough food to feed Maui’s 180,000 residents. But it will require changing the system.
“Everyone wants to talk about creating food security,” Dobovan said. “We need to put a lot more in the state budget for agriculture. There’s all this bull talk about increasing food security by 2030. You can’t actually do it by just talking about it.”
He continued, “We spend about $6 billion a year importing food to Hawaiʻi to feed the tourism industry and most of that money leaves the islands. Every dollar the Hub brings in gets recycled right back into the community.”
Ness said an early concern was that with the return of tourism, sales to hotels and restaurants would leave farmers without enough crops to sell to the Hub.
Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case.
“We’ve seen how much they are growing and expanding. I think in a few years we’re going to see that we are actually growing a lot more food on Maui.” Although farmers are now visibly increasing yields, consumers remain integral to cultivating and a sustainable, local food economy.
“They have to commit to buying local products. It’s not just about supporting the salad dressing company but the farmers they source from. And all of that money stays on Maui,” Ness said. “We can build the Hub but if nobody uses it, we fail. If consumers don’t continue to agree to shop in a different way, we fail.”
Local residents are instrumental in shaping the island’s economy. “[Locals] really have the future of Maui literally in their hands and their pocketbooks,” Ness said. “We’ve seen that when everyone’s life turns upside down and people make different choices, just how powerful that can be.”
Ness hopes the Hub can empower people to stay on course.
“Just because things are opening back up, the fact that we import almost 90 percent of our food has not changed. The fact that when a hurricane comes, or the next pandemic, or the next whatever…we are still really, really, vulnerable,” Ness said. “And we can change that. But we all have to make the effort to change.”
For weekly pick-up locations and more information on the Maui Food Hub visit: https://mauihub.org/about-us/
Photo Credit: Autumn Rae Ness