Want Hawaii To Be Less Dependent On Imported Food? Change Your Diet

The first time Dana Shapiro cooked breadfruit, she wasn’t terribly impressed.

Shapiro bought one of the hard, football-sized fruits at a farmers market on Kauai, left it out overnight on her kitchen counter, and was surprised to find it soft and mushy the next day. To salvage the fruit, she baked it with butter and brown sugar and served it with ice cream. 

Hawaii Grown“It was good, but definitely a little bit weird for people who weren’t accustomed to eating it,” Shapiro said. 

It took volunteering at a breadfruit festival and entering a breadfruit recipe contest for her to discover how versatile the starchy fruit really is. Depending on when breadfruit is harvested, it can be hard or soft. It can be used as a base for chocolate mousse, as a replacement for potatoes in soups and curries. It can be dehydrated and ground into a flour and baked into any number of dishes — from cakes to pies. 

Today, Shapiro eats breadfruit — ulu in Hawaiian — about three times a week with her family when it’s in season. And as general manager of the Hawaii Ulu Cooperative, she’s helping farmers expand production of what some agriculture experts say is Hawaii’s crop of the future — and one of the best candidates for helping the state reduce its dependence on imported food. 

Breadfruit, or ulu, is grown at Kualoa Ranch and sold at its market. Breadfruit trees require less water and are less labor-intensive to produce than many other starchy carbohydrate crops. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat

Hawaii imports, by various estimates, upwards of 85% of its food, but that number is deceptively complex. More than half the fish we eat in Hawaii is caught locally. Hawaii farmers grow a majority of the cabbage and tomatoes consumed here. Most of the cucumbers. We grow so much papaya that it’s one of our top agricultural exports.  

Hawaii’s real problem emerges with staple foods: things like wheat and rice — carbohydrates that make up the bulk of people’s diets in the islands. The kinds of foods that have historically been so important that they were worshipped in many developing societies. Nobody worships the cucumber, points out Shapiro’s husband Noa Lincoln, an assistant professor of indigenous crops and cropping systems at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

When it comes to those crucial crops, our self-sufficiency drops to essentially zero. 

“It’s not even a blip,” Lincoln says.  

It is extraordinarily unlikely that Hawaii will ever grow and process the amount of wheat and rice and corn needed to meet the demands of the state’s consumers.

If Hawaii wants to reduce its dependence on imported foods, a more successful route might be for people to change what they eat. To embrace staple foods like breadfruit and sweet potatoes. In a sense, decolonizing Hawaii’s diet and embracing many of the foods that nourished Native Hawaiians in the past. 

There are some big challenges standing in the way — from increasing production and lowering the cost of locally grown staples like ulu to the time it takes to prepare food from scratch instead of relying on processed food. And then there’s simply raising awareness of these fruits and vegetables as an option. 

“If there was an unlimited supply right now, I think that awareness might be one of the biggest barriers to growing demand,” Shapiro said. 

The Best Foods For Hawaii

Hawaii has an amazing array of microclimates. Name pretty much any crop in the world and chances are it will grow here. But climate is just one factor in what makes farming successful. 

Wheat and rice farms are most successful when grown on a large scale with the help of mechanical harvesting. You don’t plant wheat and rice on 10 acres, you plant those crops on a hundred — even a thousand — acres, said Amjad Ahmad, an assistant extension agent at UH Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources who helps bridge the gap between researchers at the college and farmers who need assistance. 

The typical farm size in Hawaii is 1 to 5 acres, Ahmad said. 

In 2016, Hawaii’s last remaining sugar grower shut down an operation that had run for 146 years. Now the 40,000 acres are owned by Mahi Pono, the marriage of a California farm management company and a Canadian pension fund. The company is growing produce with plans to reduce the state’s reliance on imports. Courtesy: Mahi Pono

Potatoes and corn — two other popular staple crops — are difficult for other reasons. Climate change is already starting to impact corn growers in the state, Ahmad said, and although there are efforts underway by Mahi Pono to start large scale potato farming on Maui, it’s not a crop that grows well across all of the islands. 

The best choices for widespread production across Hawaii are staple crops that are nutrient-rich, grow well across all the islands, don’t need as much land as rice and wheat, and don’t have high water demands. 

Ahmad’s been experimenting with growing heirloom varieties of dried beans, and found several varieties that grow well across the state. He’s been targeting beans like tiger eye beans that command a high price on the market and would be viable both for sale locally but also for farmers to export — providing more economic incentive for farmers to grow the staple crop. 

Another factor to consider is taste. Food isn’t simply about consuming calories. It’s a cultural practice that links us to home. 

“We should be planting everything that we are ono for,” says Tammy Smith of Hale Kealoha Hawaiian Food, a family-run catering company that also holds workshops for families on how to prepare traditional indigenous meals. “Ono” in Hawaiian means delicious.  

For Smith, a more ideal diet in Hawaii would swap rice and pasta for kalo or taro, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, papaya and bananas. Other staple crops that farming experts say are good to grow and eat in Hawaii include cassava and kabocha squash. 

Transitioning to a diet centered on locally grown carbohydrates can be challenging — even for evangelists of such a move. 

“I grew up on rice,” Lincoln said. “When I have a bad day, there’s still nothing I want more than just teriyaki and rice.”

A bigger challenge than rethinking comfort foods was making it easier to eat breadfruit as a staple, Lincoln said. Until you know what you’re doing, it’s much easier to come home and put on a pot of rice than it is to peel, steam and cook fresh fruit. 

“Now we have our system down and it probably doesn’t take us any longer to do breadfruit than it does to do rice,” he said. 

He and Shapiro have also figured out what the best go-to dishes are for their family. Their daughter prefers breadfruit cut and baked as a substitute for french fries. Lincoln’s favorite is a twice-cooked patty. He steams the breadfruit, does a rough mash with onions and garlic and Worcestershire sauce and spices, makes them into little patties and pan fries them. 

The switch in their diet has been good for the family, Lincoln said. 

“Even that it just sparks some conversation … like, oh yeah, we got this breadfruit from Uncle John yesterday,” Lincoln said. “There’s something very special and intangible about that personal connection to food.”

Barriers To Change

There’s also an element of privilege in the idea of changing to a locally grown diet, says Albie Miles, assistant professor of sustainable community food systems at UH West Oahu.

Many people would benefit health wise by changing their diets, but they need the financial resources and access to high quality food in their community — as well as the knowledge and time to prepare it, he says.

The high cost of production in Hawaii means that local products are often more expensive than imported ones — making local food purchases a nonstarter for many families. 

A five-pound bag of breadfruit flour on the Ulu Cooperative’s website costs $50 — 10 times the cost of a bag of wheat flour at the grocery store. 

Sand Island Matson containers with large crane. Preparedness
Hawaii farmers will have to produce a lot more staple crops if the state is going to reduce its reliance on imported food. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Given that nearly half of Hawaii’s households with children are food insecure, the state’s focus should be on addressing food insecurity and making high quality food available to everyone, and then worry about whether it’s local, Miles said.

Large purchasing institutions — public and private schools, state agencies, hotels, hospitals — can drive changes in the market. But individuals with disposable income and the ability to change their diets can also play a role by buying more local staples. Those combined forces caused organic produce, for example, to drop in price and become a more mainstream option. 

As more institutions and people move in that direction, then it allows the producer to increase their scale of production, which then tends to place a downward pressure on price, Miles said. “I think that’s often always the way that these cycles work. The early adopters are paying up front.”

That may be what is happening with breadfruit.

When the Ulu Cooperative started in 2016, it had nine growers with roughly 2,000 trees. The co-op now has 105 growers with 5,200 trees. Many of those trees aren’t producing fruit yet. Shapiro expects production by the growers to jump to a million pounds of breadfruit a year by 2030 — a tenfold increase from today. 

The co-op purchases breadfruit from member farms and processes, markets and sells the fruit. Its most popular product is steamed and quartered fruit that can be used as the basis for any number of recipes. 

Based on a survey of its clients, the co-op expects to sell out of its product next season — though it is reserving some of its harvest for direct sale to consumers through its website. 

A million pounds of breadfruit is not very much compared to how much rice and potatoes the state imports every year. But Shapiro thinks it will help take the co-op from a place of demonstrating the value of breadfruit to a place where restaurants and grocery stores can carry the product across the state. 

“The end goal is not to get to a million pounds a year. The end goal is to get to 30 million pounds per year, because that’s the amount that we need to — in any meaningful way — become more self-sufficient,” Shapiro said, “and provide a viable alternative to imported staples.”

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