A few months ago, a study came out comparing how states ranked when it came to their commitment to raising and eating locally grown food.  It measured the per-capita presence of farmers markets and CSA enterprises to gauge the supply and demand for locally produced food.  I was completely unsurprised by the state that ranked highest—Vermont.  I was there this time last year for a triathlon and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to find local goods everywhere.  The first coffee shop I went into after arriving on a red eye had a giant chalkboard with a list 20 deep highlighting the local farms they supported.  None of this surprised me as I had just finished reading a book about a town in Vermont that was literally saved by their commitment to local food, appropriately titled The Town That Food Saved by Ben Hewitt.

What did surprise me about the locavore study was seeing that Hawaii rounded out the top five (Iowa, Montana, and Maine ranked 2-4).  With over 60 farmers markets on the island of Oahu alone—three of which I can walk to from my house—it definitely seems like the supply of local food is abundant.  However, I quickly learned that the presence of a farmers market does not equal a commitment to local food.

This study came out a few weeks after Hawaii’s 2012 legislative session ended.  In this session, a community derived bill looking to promote local food production, HB2703, made it further than expected, but ultimately died.  This bill would have required Hawaii to double its production of local food by 2020, which could only be accomplished if the Department of Agriculture developed a way to monitor how much food is grown and consumed locally (currently unknown).  Also around this time, big decisions were being made by the Land Use Commission on whether or not to rezone agriculture land for urban development (Ho’opili and Koa Ridge projects).  Citing the need for additional housing and job creation, the Commission approved the rezoning over cries for what such a decision means for local food production.

I bring up these issues to help provide context for the local food scene here.  I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at my first farmers market, but quickly learned it wasn’t like the markets I supported back in Washington (who ranked 22nd).  In Tacoma, people will typically pay a little more for beautiful, seasonal produce because they know they’re buying produce that was grown sustainably, picked recently and traveled a minimal distance.

In Hawaii, the majority of people shopping at farmers markets are more interested in getting cheap produce.   All the vendors have the same things for sale, very little organic produce is available, and much of what is for sale was grown on the mainland… at least that’s my experience with the markets near my house.  Here are a few pictures from what you’ll find at those markets.

At the Thursday morning market in Kailua, which is run by the People’s Open Market (a group that runs 25 other markets on the island), you’ll find two rows of vendors in a parking lot next to a school and a community center.  Signage is few and far between, and the produce will either be bagged in plastic or available in bulk out of a box.  A couple vendors sell flowers (this is where I like to buy mine), but for the most part, this hour-long market only sells produce.  It’s usually crowded because the prices are good, and you can find things here that are hard to find elsewhere (like chicos).   I think most of what is sold here was grown locally, but some of it is being resold from another source (potatoes, peppers, lemons, etc).  You’ve really got to ask questions and be picky if buying local is your goal.

Scenes from the Thursday evening farmers market in Kailua, HI.

My favorite market is probably the Thursday evening market, which is run by the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation.  This market has a greater mix of vendors, with only a few selling produce, a few selling plants, and the rest offering tasty and unique prepared goods.  This is a very lively market in the center of town that is bustling before the horn goes off at 5 PM, indicating people can now buy what’s for sale.  Many people buy something before 5, but they can’t collect it until the horn sounds.  Here you’ve got many amazing options for dinner, but sadly, many of them are served on Styrofoam.  I like this market because the signage here is much better than at the morning market and the farmers are much more willing to chat with you about who they are and how their produce was grown.  I usually leave this market with something I’ve never eaten before, like pesto made from local Kahuku sea asparagus or amaranth leaves from Otsuji Farms.

Amaranth leaves

The Saturday evening market, run by Mahiku Farmers, is what you would get if you combined the two Thursday markets.  Half the vendors are selling bagged produce and half are selling prepared dinners and desserts.  This market is set on the open grass at Kailua Elementary School, which is pretty big and makes it feel like no one is there.  Last time we went, we were surprised to see a booth selling Tuna Guys, a canned tuna company based out of Scott’s hometown of Gig Harbor, WA.  They were the same price as they are in Washington so we bought one can and then bought our dinner from the Soul Patrol food truck.

The Saturday evening farmers market


I realize the Locavore index is looking for simple and consistent data that should indicate what kind of supply and demand for local food is present in each state, but perhaps it’s more complicated that the number of farmers markets held and CSA enterprises available.  A state like Hawaii should not rank 5th when it comes to locavorism as long as they:

  • import around 90% of its food, and export a lot of what is grown here because it’s too expensive to process,
  • rezone active agriculture land for urban development so that the state can accommodate a larger population in the future, and
  • fail to pass and implement policy that would monitor and encourage greater local food production.

Farmers markets are important venues that bring food producers in touch with consumers in a mutually beneficially way—the growers are hopefully getting a higher profit than if they used a distributor and the buyers are hopefully getting higher quality produce and keeping their money in the local economy.  While I love going to farmers markets here, I can’t say that I feel like I’m touch with the growers or think the quality is better than what is available in the grocery store.  I’ve become someone who buys a bag of lemons for a dollar at the Thursday morning market, knowing that the stickers on each lemon mean they were grown on the mainland and that the farmer selling it isn’t getting much of a profit.  For a state to rank high on a Locavore index, it should be one that prides itself on its food self-sufficiency.  I think we’ll earn that 5th place when the mangoes at the Waipio Costco aren’t from Costa Rica.

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