Community-driven solutions to food insecurity in Hawai’i

Hawai’i remains one of the most beloved states in the country because of its beauty and deep-rooted culture. However, this has not prevented the islands from facing numerous challenges, both socially and economically. For example, it is home to the most sought-after seafood and produce, yet its average grocery prices continue to rise. This is happening for a variety of reasons, mainly because larger corporations make it harder for small businesses to thrive. Among other things, Hawai’i’s food security is an important issue that becomes more complicated the more it is researched.

Over the last few months, a Swette Center team conducted a pre-feasibility study on the ability of industrial juicing to help increase food security in the Hawaiian islands. The study was planned for the Olohana Foundation, a non-profit that develops strategies for producers and communities to promote sustainability and food security in the islands. The Olohana Foundation has been involved in numerous important projects and has extensive relationships with many communities to create social change. The goal was to investigate how the Olohana Foundation could develop its aseptic juicing line to provide sustainable economic opportunities to producers and other communities in Hawai’i. 

An essential area of the project is the business and marketing side of Hawai’i-related juice products, as well as factors affecting the food industry as a whole. While many aspects of food security in Hawai’i relate to what’s happening on the islands, they are relevant to the beverage business as a whole. In the juice industry, specifically, the primary crops of many smaller producers are the juice ingredients. This includes citrus, papayas, pineapples, and other fruits. Greater market and consumer trends are always applicable to any startup, and thus can help dictate how to best utilize Hawai’i-grown ingredients. There are lots of opportunities for growth and business, and subsequently, change can be driven through business.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, previous consumer sentiments about people, products, and companies were thrown out the door. While many people are already becoming health-conscious, sugar became the big consumer turnoff. The concern for health and well-being during the pandemic helped many realize that sugars and additives can have health effects more detrimental than people believe. Additionally, people want the foods they buy to actively benefit their health and wellness, with popularity for functional ingredients and nootropics soaring. This has assisted single-serve shots to become recognizable in retail stores, a product category no one would have ever conceived a few years ago. Many companies have caught on, and dumped their “juice holdings”, in order to continue increasing profits. However, unlike the trends consumer sentiments may suggest, orange juice, which is loaded with sugar, is becoming more popular. This, along with other difficulties, shows we’re not just dealing with apples and oranges. 

While many trends suggest that a community-driven operation would succeed in Hawai’i, there are also problems common to starting a business that need to be addressed. Regardless of what approach is taken, ensuring sustainable practices are used is the most important objective. The main issue though is the costs of production in Hawai’i, which includes machinery and equipment, distribution and packaging. But what makes these costs a strain is the relative scale of the operation compared to other food manufacturers selling in Hawai’i. For example, though distribution options like catering or school lunches are viable, hiring for and organizing the means for distribution is small for the amount produced. Being that it is a community-driven operation, producers won’t be able to compete with the lower prices of larger corporations who market in Hawai’i. The state of Hawai’i also imports a very high amount from the Continental US and boasts the highest shipping costs in the country. Packaging thus presents itself as a problem because regardless of approach, the product needs to last somehow. Challenges like these are why food security in Hawai’i is a forefront issue to begin with. 

The problem with the idea of upscaling this project is that the main mission is actually to keep the scale small. It’s not that the project shouldn’t reach everywhere in Hawai’i, but it has to stay community-driven. The best way to establish production in Hawai’i is to include the producers and communities in Hawai’i, not outsource production somewhere else. The operation should be more of a cooperative than a for-profit company, as producers should have autonomy for what they supply. Cooperatives also benefit producers through the bulk purchase of supplies, shared strategies and knowledge among growers, and providing a guaranteed market for excess produce. The Olohana Foundation operates through creating relationships with communities and people, because creating change is done through those people. Being community-driven also means ensuring quality over quantity. What makes Hawai’i’s culture and its products so enticing is the care that comes with them, coming from the tight-knit way these businesses collaborate, their genuine relationships, and the values they uphold. Even though following market data and consumer trends is best practice, it doesn’t change the goal, to get more producers involved.

Photo Source: Unsplash

Luke Swette