How the Hāna Farmers Market became the piko of the town, reinvigorating self-reliance and kokua in East Maui as food security waned throughout the county
Once the agricultural heart of the island, East Maui has grown dependent upon the same food supply tropes that the county’s residents know too well. (Lanai residents toting heavy boxes of oversize Costco goods on the ferry-ride home might know them best.) For decades, Costco runs have been a mainstay for Hāna residents; once or twice a month, (mostly) parents make the five-hour round-trip trek to “the other side” to load up on staples, spending hundreds of dollars at Costco, supplementing specialty items at Mana, Tamura’s, or Foodland.
For some, hunting boar and pounding paʻiai is still integral to the East Maui way of life, but for many, food has been commodified and increasingly imported. Informal marketplaces have always sprung up: the Hāna fisherman selling fillets from his truck on Haneoʻo road, homemade sausage sales by word of mouth, and fruit stands piled high with avocados and mangos. But the majority of food comes from ʻoutside’.
Food sovereignty, food security, self-sufficiency, food sustainability—what do these words mean when their intricacies are laid bare in confluence with one another? The arrival of the pandemic offered a fresh perspective on Maui Nui’s relationship with food, with need, with scarcity, and with the flow of food: from our ports and our farms to our stores and our plates.
Just before the pandemic, the Hāna Farmers Market came to fruition, giving locals the option to spend some of their grocery money a little closer to home, ultimately keeping hundreds of thousands of dollars in the community. Pandemic relief funds that the county was slated to give to Maui Foodbank’s Hāna division were instead injected back into the community in $5,000 weekly allotments of “scrip”—as they came to be called—tickets given to residents to spend at the weekly farmers market.
Every week, board members of Hawaii Farmers Union United’s (HFUU) Hāna chapter, as well as Leinaʻala Perry of Project Hoʻomana and Hāna Community Association’s Claire Kamalu, who liaised with the county to direct the funds to the market, gave out $15 per person in scrips on a first come first serve basis. Rather than a box from the foodbank, a family of four received $60 to spend on fruits and vegetables, eggs, honey, and poi.
With news of the scrips spreading quickly, organizers moved the market into the town center to brace for high turnout. Perry, who alongside her teenage daughters, Tyra-Li and Pristine, helped get the program off the ground, recalled the first market, “we introduced everybody in a circle and did a pule [prayer] and said what this is all about. We said, ‘Just to let you guys know, we are anticipating a big crowd’—and within half an hour we’d given away $5,000 and had 350 people, and since then we’ve run out almost every time.”
“There are a lot of families who really depend on the scrip program,” Perry said. “When you get a box from the foodbank, you don’t eat half of the things, and a lot goes to waste. With the scrip, you can choose what you like, so there is a zero-waste factor. And if you don’t know how to prepare a certain vegetable, you can ask the farmer and they can tell you how to use it and the nutritional value, and,” she emphasized, “the money stays here.”
Cash spending has not been tracked, but from July 2020 to October 2021, Hāna residents spent approximately $300,000 in scrips on local produce at the market, according to market manager Kari Hagedorn. “It was the best use that we could see of the Covid relief fund because the money was going directly into the hands of residents to use on local produce,” Hagedorn said. “It really elevated all of the agricultural businesses in Hāna.” The market is now the primary source of income for more than half of the markets’ 20 regular vendors according to Hagedorn.
Before the scrips program, the market debuted in February 2020, when a handful of vendors set up tents in the rain on a small grassy area mauka of Hāna Ranch Restaurant. Vendors from East Maui sold greens, ʻulu and taro chips, kombucha and fresh coconut milk, and an array of fruit Hāna is known for, like bananas, avocados, and citrus.
For two months, the market gained traction, attracting locals and tourists alike until travel screeched to a halt and stay-at-home orders were issued with the arrival of COVID-19. Hāna went from being merely Maui’s most far-flung town to its most exclusive, when for three months only East Maui residents were allowed to pass blockades in Honopou and ʻUlupalakua that separated Keʻanae, Hāna, Kīpahulu, and Kaupo from the rest of the island.
Hāna School and Hotel Travaasa (now Hāna-Maui Resort) closed, the twice-daily flights were grounded, and the town’s fledgling farmers market went online. With their dining room closed, Hotel Travaasa offered their refrigeration space to Hāna farmers and became the pick-up location for the online market. The market’s only baker, twenty-nine-year-old Savanah Sandate, who had recently lost her job due to the pandemic, was selling out weekly. She started baking bread in the hotel’s commercial ovens to meet demand during the shutdown and went from baking 24 loaves for the first market to baking 50 loaves and 25 baguettes plus bagels and a rotating cast of sourdough treats, including croissants and chocolate-filled doughnuts.
Aside from scrips, a trio of food security partnerships have helped Hāna families gain access to local food from the market. Low-income residents are able to use federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to buy food at the market with electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards. Meanwhile, market organizers work with Maui Economic Opportunity (MEO) to distribute fresh produce to kūpuna via their Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, and to kids through Maui United Way’s “Kau Kau for Keiki” program. The market had swiped over 175 unique EBT cards, processing $75,000 in SNAP benefits, as of November.
Nearly half of Hawaiʻi’s families with children reported being food insecure in a study by the University of Hawaiʻi earlier this year. Nationally, one in 10 families were food insecure in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The discrepancy—Hawai‘i’s food insecurity nearing five times the national average—is in part attributable to tourism-sector job loss that proliferated in the first year of the pandemic. Nearly three quarters of families who said they were “very food insecure” reported a loss of employment income due to the pandemic, according to the UH Manoa study.
Before the pandemic rippled across the island, fifty-four year-old Jill Kawaiaea, of Hāna, worked at Travaasa Hotel and sold ʻulu chips and coconut candy at the farmers market now and then with her family. It wasn’t until she was laid off from the hotel that Kawaiaea started offering more added-value foods at the market: drying pineapple, pickling mango, and selling a friend’s honey.
The market became her main source of income, so when the hotel reopened and started hiring people back to meet the resurgence of tourists, Kawaiaea opted not to return. “I see everybody here,” she said, “I trade with other farmers, and kūpuna and people who wouldn’t usually buy these things are buying them with SNAP.”
“People are eating sprouts!” exclaimed Linda Gravatt, a farmers market vendor in her sixties who was the guidance counselor at Hāna school for nearly three decades. She said that many Hāna residents were initially hesitant to buy her sprouts and homemade hummus and pesto, but became regulars after they gave it a try. “The scrip has in a way taught people to use the market,” said Hagedorn, who admits that she expects some falloff in spending now that the scrips program has ended. “But I think people have seen how useful it is, and I think they’ll continue to support our farmers even though the scrips are through,” she said. The market’s board used their Hawaii Farmers Union United funding to do a round of scrips on Nov. 5th, the week after the final county-funded round. Securing private funding could be a next step in perpetuating the program.
The Hāna market’s CARES funding may be on its way out, but the need for food security support on Maui still exceeds pre-pandemic norms. The number of people receiving SNAP in Maui County increased nearly threefold in the last two years; more than 12,000 households and 75,500 individuals were enrolled this October, compared to approximately 9,000 households and 21,000 individuals two years before.
As of mid-November, the SNAP office had yet to process 600 renewal applications submitted in October because of the uptick in need. “Applications and renewals are double the normal number and we have the same staff,” said SNAP administrator Manny Banasihan. He added that SNAP staff had been working tirelessly to complete the high number of applications and renewals so that beneficiaries would have grocery money ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.
“If you look at the equity gap, it’s only grown since the pandemic, and it wasn’t great to begin with,” said Nick Winfrey, executive director of Maui United Way. The organizationʻs Kau Kau for Keiki program gives public school students meal boxes during school breaks to increase food security for kids who depend on school lunches to meet their nutrition needs. During summer break they gave out 600 boxes a week. Over fall break that number ballooned to 1,500 and Winfrey is expecting the same demand for Winter break. Winfrey said that with Kau Kau for Keiki, his team was able to secure the funding needed to look beyond processed and shelf-stable foods. “We said, ‘Let’s actually look at supplying from local farmers and using healthy, indigenous foods—we can do poi, we can do ʻulu, we can do all of these things, to where we’re actually able to provide funding to farmers to provide food to those in need.” So far Kau Kau for Keiki has given out half a ton of poi and hundreds of pounds of organic Hāna-grown oranges and bananas along with shelf-stable goods.
More than 85 percent of food consumed in Maui County is imported. With 167,000 residents and more than 3 million visitors in 2019 (an average of 66,414 on island each day), local food advocate Lauryn Rego sees increases in local food production as a net positive regardless of whether it goes to a hotel or a neighborhood grocer. “If our farmers are supplying hotels with produce, that money stays here, and if the tourists stop coming, that food stays here,” she said.
“When food stopped going to the hotels, we saw that those foods became more accessible to local people. So all of a sudden, there were Maui Gold pineapples in every [relief] box, there were microgreens in every box, there were duck eggs in every box,” Rego said. In March 2020 Rego founded Feeding Hawaiʻi, an initiative that documents Hawaiʻi’s food system response to Covid-19. In numerous interviews, farmers told Rego about how they grappled with the disintegration of the tourist market—often redirecting their goods back into their own communities. Before the pandemic, Gina, 42, and Greggie Lind, 45, sold fish to premium buyers including Mama’s Fish House and Tropic Fish Hawaiʻi. When tourism-driven demand evaporated, the Linds started selling to their own community through the Hāna farmers market, and by the time the market returned en plein air in July 2020 they were selling enough to support their family of seven.
When the tourism industry started to recover that November, the Linds decided not to sell to Mama’s Fish House or Tropics Fish Hawaiʻi despite the premium prices they offered. “The gratification that we receive from selling fish to our community and enabling people to buy fish at some of the cheapest prices in the state was way beyond any financial gain we’d make selling it outside,” Gina said. “I’d rather Hāna people be able to come here and buy ahi or mahi for $10 a pound than have to spend $18 a pound for frozen fish. This way, you can feed a family for $20.”
To be food secure is defined by the United Nations as having steady physical and economic access to safe and nutritious food that allows for an active and healthy life. SNAP is a pillar of food security in the US, but its critics say the program has failed to increase benefits with rising costs of food, forcing beneficiaries to forego more expensive fresh options for cheaper, often low quality, shelf-stable goods. In October, SNAP benefits increased permanently for the first time in 45 years. Monthly assistance went up 21 percent, approximately $36 per person, in response to a revised analysis of the cost of maintaining a healthy diet in the U.S. (that had not been updated since 1975). However, the change coincided with the end of a pandemic-related emergency 15% increase of SNAP benefits, so most recipients only saw benefits rise by $12-16 per person per month.
In recent years, food aid programs in Hawaii have begun to utilize partnerships with local farmers to heighten access to nutritious, culturally relevant food. Statewide program Da Bux supports farmers and food insecure families symbiotically by subsidizing Hawaii-grown produce for SNAP beneficiaries. Da Bux gives EBT users 50 percent off local produce and pays farmers the difference. Maui Food Bank works with local farmers to add fresh produce to their boxes, though executive director Rich Yust says he can’t blame farmers for the decline in supply when tourism is back. “Are they going to sell to us at $1 a pound or are they going to sell to the Four Seasons at $6 a pound? We can hardly pay for them to harvest what they’ve got with labor costs where they are,” he said.
Yust said that at the height of the pandemic his team provided food to more than 52,000 people during the month of October 2020, more than four times pre-pandemic norms. Demand has since decreased—25,000 people received food from the food bank in October— but is still double pre-pandemic demand. Meanwhile the number of farmers supplying the food bank has dropped from 26, at the peak of the pandemic, to six as hotels and restaurants reinstate their orders.
On the Thursday before Thanksgiving, Maui Food Bank volunteers set up outside of Hale Makana Oʻ Waiale, an affordable housing development in Wailuku, to pass out bags of fresh produce grown in Kula and shelf-stable goods. In 23 minutes, all 70 bags were gone. A handful of people from the neighborhood who came by too late were surprised to find a cleared distribution table and empty-handed volunteers.
Seventy-one-year-old Roger McMorris, a retired bus driver who lives at Hale Makana Oʻ Waiale, said that this was the first time in a decade of picking up Food Bank boxes there that he’d ambled over to find no food left.
“It was crazy today, there was a line when we got here,” said Maui Food Bank volunteer Raymond Rivera, who has been working the Waiale distribution site for a year and a half with his wife Liza. The crowd was smaller than in summer 2020, but the Riveras said they hadn’t anticipated the day’s surge. “I just called to say that next month (the day before Christmas eve) we’re going to need more bags,” Liza said.
At the last Hāna market in November, the Lind’s stall was stocked with fresh ahi fillets, poke, smoked fish, and fruit grown by Greggie Lind’s parents. Multigeneration Kipahulu farmers, Eunice and Greg Lind Sr., who are in their seventies, stopped selling their produce years ago when an abundance of cheap commercial agriculture products drove down prices. “It is ridiculous to take bananas all the way out to Foodland for a dollar a pound,” Gina said. “Now they bring their fruit here: soursop, banana, lychee, so it’s really sustaining them too and bringing them back to farming.”