A number of measures making their way through the current Legislative session aim to decrease Hawaii’s dependence on the mainland when it comes to food.
“The Legislature finds that Hawaii is dangerously dependent on imported food,” reads the introduction to Senate Bill 937, which would establish a new branch of the Department of Agriculture to boost Hawaii’s food resiliency.
“Hawaii imports approximately 92 percent of its food … Hawaii’s reliance on out-of-state sources of food places residents directly at risk of food shortages in the event of natural disasters, economic disruption and other external factors,” the bill reads.
Such dependency on imports means that Hawaii currently has an inventory of fresh produce that would supply consumers for no more than 10 days. A total of 90 percent of the beef, 67 percent of the fresh vegetables, 65 percent of the fresh fruits and 80 percent of all milk purchased in the state are imported.
In addition to the potential of a shortage, the high levels of importation also mean a lost opportunity for economic growth and job creation.
“The research shows that replacing 10 percent of current food imports with locally grown food will create a total of 2,300 jobs,” the bill says.
The Senate Committee on Ways and Means recommended the measure’s passage on Wednesday, with the approval of Big Island Sens. Gil Kahele, D-Hilo, and Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, Ka‘u.
Senate Bill 524 also received Kahele and Ruderman’s support while passing through the Ways and Means committee Feb. 21. The bill would fund a program that would, among other things, work to expand marketing campaigns promoting benefits of local foods, encourage public institutions like schools to purchase locally grown food, improve agricultural infrastructure, and expand workforce development services for the agriculture industry.
Ruderman said he supports the bills and others like them, both as a legislator and a businessman who operates a chain of health-food stores in Hawaii.
“I’ve learned, from being in the business many years, what we need to fill the gaps in the local food picture. I think there’s a few important pieces missing from the puzzle,” he said.
Those gaps cover areas such as marketing and distribution, as well as what he called “value-added food production.”
“Every week, we import 80 or 90 percent of our food from the mainland. And, if you look closely at what we’re importing … inside those cardboard boxes, it’s 95 percent water and air,” he said. “You’ve got bottles of iced tea, chips, crackers, cookies.
“We have to recognize the foolishness of this and recognize the value that would come from making most of those items here. Although we may not grow wheat here, we should still be able to make the cookies and crackers here. … And while we’re making them here, we could include some local ingredients. We’ll all benefit from fresher food at lower prices.”
Ruderman added he has introduced another bill, Senate Bill 380, which tackles the food security issue from the education angle. It would gauge the need for a learning center project in Puna through the University of Hawaii’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management.
Ruderman said he’s shooting for an appropriation of between $100,000 and $200,000 to fund two or three positions. He said he anticipates being able to qualify for a federal grant to help fund the program once it is established.
On Feb. 22, the Senate Ways and Means committee recommended the bill for passage. Ruderman said he anticipates the bill being discussed on the Senate floor next week.