Strengthening Hawaii's Community Food Security In A COVID-19 World

Jun 10, 2020

Food shortages in communities statewide because of the COVID-19 pandemic helped higlight the vulnerability of Hawaiʻi’s food supply. We currently import nearly 90 percent of the food we eat. The issue has sparked discussions on strengthening food security in the islands.

Wayne Kawachi, 73, has been fishing the shores of Kaʻū his entire life. The retired commercial fishermen says fresh fish is a luxury in his hometown.

“Normally, you know it’s hard to get, especially in this area because most of the fishermen will sell their fish to Hilo – thatʻs where you can sell it for a good price,” says Kawachi. “So this was a really good thing, I thought, to do and make people happy.” 

For the last three months, Kawachi has been donating his catch to kupuna from Pahala to Ocean View. He says he’s made as many as 700 deliveries of ehu, ono, ahi, and more since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“I don’t think anybody should be without food in this community,” says Kawachi.

People across the island chain just like Kawachi are helping their neighbors put food on the table during this pandemic.

“These are farmers, ranchers, fishermen, hunter gatherers, people who are practicing subsistence living and who are also addressing food security in their communities in different ways,” says Sylvia Hussey, CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Hussey says these efforts are part of the long-term solution to our food security problems. And they’re investing in it. OHA is developing a grant program to support locally-sourced food from area producers.

“We know economic recovery is going to be different from a Hawaiian perspective. So investing in our community, these farmers, ranchers and their communities will also help shape what economic recovery looks like in our lens,” says Hussey.

For centuries, Native Hawaiians fed themselves by developing sophisticated systems of fishponds and irrigated taro patches – traditions that continue to this day. But will these practices yield enough food to meet modern-day demands? Natalie Kurashima says yes. The Kamehameha Schools ethnobotanist was the lead author in a 2019 study that found use of indigenous ag lands could dramatically increase local food production.

“It’s basically saying thereʻs potential on every island to cultivate food in these indigenous ag lands,” says Kurashima. “These areas that are proven systems of production that were feeding people for centuries.”

Kurashima and her fellow researchers at University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa and the U.S. Geological Survey mapped out 250,000 acres of indigenous agricultural lands for the study. They found these lands have the potential to produce more than one million metric tons of food per year.

“That’s one part of it – can the ʻāina do it? The answer is yes. But we really do need a substantial rethinking of Hawaiʻi’s food system if we’re going to be producing food and feeding community in a different way.