Issue 9 Food Locavore

14 days of eating 100 percent locally grown, organic foods.

What was once a way of life is now a trend as hot as the reusable shopping bags we’re hauling farmers-market-bought greens and free-range eggs in. It’s nearly impossible to be out and about on any Hawaiian island without seeing the catch phrase “eat local” on a T-shirt, bumper sticker, or jutting out on a sign in a supermarket isle, coercing us to buy locally grown food.

That’s not to say it’s a trend lacking in an honorable goal. Hawai‘i relies on imports for around 85 to 90 percent of its foods. There are numerous benefits to eating local, from better heath to economic sustainability and food security.

Locally grown produce and fruit is generally higher in nutrition than food that has sat for weeks while being shipped from the mainland or another country. Eggs from your own backyard coop or an island, free-range farm are significantly higher in nutrition than mainland eggs (ever noticed the darker yolk?). Buying and eating local supports the local economy, and it’s no secret that we need a boost there.

Then of course, there’s the idea that locally produced food is more environmentally friendly, and that its carbon footprint is lighter than something shipped in from out of state, which depends on a lot more than just fuel mileage on a ship or a plane – the treatment of pesticides and herbicides and the amount of fertilizer, water and land used are just some of the elements that determine the carbon footprint of an apple.

Perhaps the strongest motivation behind becoming a locavore is to support the growth of local food sources to prepare for the day when the barges stop bringing the food that stocks our supermarket shelves. It’s been estimated if the barges should stop, we have about seven days worth of food in the islands. After that ran out, we’d be screwed – and starving.

With the locavore movement stronger than ever, I initiated a personal eat-local challenge: two weeks, strictly local, beginning January 1, 2012. Furthering the challenge is the fact that I’m vegetarian and that after I had kids, made it a goal to buy organic.

I told myself it wouldn’t be too hard. Local veggies, locally made tofu, water and coconuts and the occasional locally brewed beer. Eating strictly local food didn’t sound much different than my normal diet, everything would just be local. Turns out, it’s not that simple.

January 1, 2012

It’s New Year’s Day and I’ve slacked on stocking my fridge with local food, so I wake up with nothing more to eat than two apple bananas. The lack of my usual New Year’s hangover proves a blessing, or I would be desperately longing for my magical hangover cure: greasy hash browns, ketchup, a butter-soaked grilled cheese sandwich, and a day-long supply of Calistoga bubbly water – of which nothing is locally made or grown.

The bananas cure the hunger shakes, but not for long. The rest of the day includes a couple of salads, an orange and Moloka‘i sweet potatoes for dinner – without butter, unfortunately. With New Year’s traffic clogging up North Shore roads, I was hesitant to venture out to the farmers market.

Plus, although farmers markets are loaded with local food, a lot of it isn’t organic. And personally, I’d rather eat organic over local, since the latter isn’t always grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics or growth hormones.

In 2010, there were 7,500 farms throughout the state utilizing 1.1 million acres according to the 2010 State Agricultural Overview published by the National Agricultural Statistics Survey. While the average farm was estimated to cover approximately 148 acres of this land, O‘ahu is home to a large number of “small farmers” who farm approximately one to five acres.

Academics have estimated that pre-contact Hawaiians were feeding roughly 500,000 people with sweet potatoes, taro, ulu (breadfruit), bananas and fish. Today, Hawai‘i has a population of approximately 1.3 million people, and only about 10 percent of our food is locally grown.

So the question is, can we do it? According to several farmers I’ve talked to, they face various obstacles, including lack of irrigation, expensive insurance premiums, short and expensive leases that affect loan qualification, and the simple fact that there’s not exactly an abundance of would-be farmers. With the problems farmers face, can we feed nearly three times as many people as the islands have ever had before with strictly local food?

Not far from my home on O‘ahu’s North Shore is a number of small farms making locally grown produce readily available to residents. Organic produce from Mohala farms is available at the local health food store, organic fruit from Poamoho Organic Produce can be easily obtained, taro is being cultivated in an unassuming area of Waialua at Na Mea Kupono Farms, Meleana’s Farm provides weekly community supported agriculture (CSA) baskets, and the Tin Roof Ranch sells organic, free-range eggs and chickens that they process themselves.

What’s interesting is that all of these farmers are new, having left behind an old career for farm boots and dirt, or are still keeping their day (or night) jobs.

It’s people running these small farms who are making rather small but significant contributions towards Hawai‘i’s sustainable future. On the other hand, it’s a lack of dedicated farmers like these that may be an obstacle towards that same goal.

Travis Overly, the owner of ‘Aina Ono Farm Stands, considers himself a new farmer. He recalls his first encounter with agriculture while in California; it was something drastically different than what local children see today.

“I call the first farmers I saw in Napa ‘rockstar farmers.’ They pulled up to their farm in a Mercedes or BMW, threw on a pair of overalls and jumped into the fields. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ But here in Hawai‘i you look at the historical aspect, and it’s a paradigm. Kids these days see farming as something to evolve and grow from, something to escape, not something that want to aspire to. Coming from generations of people who were essentially slaves on a plantation, they want to move on to other things.”

January 3, 2012

By day three, I’ve renamed the locavore diet the “starvation diet.” Two days of bananas, salad, avocados and sweet potatoes sans buttery goodness have passed and I’m starving. Vegetables and fruit just don’t keep me full.

Locally grown, protein-packed foods I normally eat, like black beans, quinoa and lentils, just aren’t available. I have a chicken coop with 25 hens where I collect eggs for my son daily (usually still warm from the hen), but I don’t eat eggs.

I look over at my beloved goat, Ramona, and wish she had indeed been pregnant when we bought her as the rancher promised so we could have milked her and made goat cheese.

Wandering around Foodland looking for something local, a light bulb goes off in my head – poi! I embark on a poi-hunting mission and it turns out the entire North Shore is out of poi.

Bypassing Wahiawa, I head straight to Mililani and find days-old poi, nice and firm and far from fresh. But I don’t care. I scarf down half a pound in the parking lot and feel truly full for the first time in almost three days.

And yes, I realize the gas spent on procuring my poi cancelled out the possibility of being environmentally friendly by eating local for this meal.

Farmers markets and backyard vegetable gardens have always been around (as have cloth shopping bags, which went unnoticed when only hippies utilized them 20 years ago), so why is it that suddenly, in the last few years, there has been a large influx of people becoming aware of them and their benefits?

According to filmmaker Robert Bates, director and executive producer of Ingredients Hawai‘i, a film that explores O‘ahu’s local food movement, “The evidence of health benefits of eating local is really very clear. It leads to a long healthy life, healthy bodies, and no food from a package. From the health standpoint, it’s a no brainer. Locally grown food has a higher nutritive value. It’s common sense.”

Bates has spent the last several years exploring nearly every aspect of O‘ahu’s local food movement. From small farmers to individuals who have cured illnesses by eating local food to gourmet chefs who focus on local food, Bates has studied people “pushing back against the mainstream system,” food wise.

Bates is right about that. There’s nothing traditional or mainstream about a rooftop garden on an old gas station in Waimanalo that produces 25 pounds of gourmet greens a week. Or a woman, like Luann Casey from the Tin Roof Ranch, who is a nurse by profession but has added “chicken de-featherer” to her daily duties simply because she “wanted to know where her food came from.”

Do we have it in us to do these things too? Could I grow pounds of veggies with my not-so-green thumb? Could I de-feather chickens so my family could eat? If those barges stopped, I wouldn’t have a choice.

January 7, 2012

It’s a week into my life as a locavore, and I’ve finally got my routine down. A rotation of Moloka‘i sweet potatoes, poi, taro, salad, broccoli and a few ulus that are hard to obtain on O‘ahu are keeping my stomach quite content.

What’s lacking is variation in flavor, of course. No balsamic vinegar and olive oil on my salad, just local Meyer lemon juice and coconut oil made by a Big Island friend, and finally, some local butter on my baked sweet potatoes. I’ve essentially turned to a traditional Hawaiian diet to get the most out of local food. Could this be the answer to our journey to eat local?

The lack of available options of truly local food brought something to light – locally made doesn’t mean locally grown. There may be a broad array of local foods, but when it comes to the collective ingredients, they are rarely 100 percent local.

Locally made bread is made with wheat flour grown in the Midwest. The best we can hope for in a freshly blended smoothie may be local papaya (hopefully non-GMO), but those blueberries and strawberries are from far, far away. Local beer is unfortunately made with non-local ingredients – we don’t have endless fields of wheat and barley growing in Hawai‘i.

That’s where the effort to eat local gets tough. One of the things I noticed the most was that eating local means making a change at the individual level.

We probably won’t be enjoying a breakfast of wheat pancakes, maple syrup and bacon unless a friend caught a wild boar (the last O‘ahu slaughterhouse processes mostly imported pigs), or a venti-sized, two-pump vanilla latte with whip from Starbucks.

A sandwich with cheddar and deli turkey, a bag of corn chips, and an energy drink is out of the question. Days won’t end with yellow Thai curry and spring rolls followed by cocktails.

To truly go local, we’ll have to adapt once again. We’ll have to accept the fact that Hawai‘i probably won’t ever produce all of the ingredients for the indulgences that we’re used to – wheat, M&M’s, soy in all forms, enough dairy for everyone, buffalo mozzarella, rum and vodka, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, mustard – you get the idea.

We’ll have to accept change in our diet, and we may have to lean towards a diet similar of that of pre-contact Hawaiians and other traditional Pacific Islander foods.

It may even go deeper than that. We may have to find the time to tend a backyard garden and chicken coop, to milk our own goat or cow. And if we don’t have the space or time for this, than we’ll have to trade with a neighbor who does.

During my two-week stint eating local, I realized I unknowingly grew up a locavore. Living in Puna on the Big Island, we ate local without thinking about it. If we needed an avocado for sandwiches, we’d head out to one of the many trees around our neighborhood.

When my mom sent me outside to play, guavas, java plums and mangoes served as treats instead of candy. Instead of heading to McDonald’s for fries, we’d pick an ulu and make ulu fries. Days spent at the beach surfing were sustained by random friends and beachgoers offering up a daily harvest of coconuts, cracked opened with a machete right on the beach, rather than running to a lunch wagon for soda.

Hawai‘i once provided for its people, and generations later, the people are looking to come full circle and thrive on what the land has to offer. Looking forward, Bates says, “The functionality of the local food movement is based on a sense of connecting like-minded people supporting each other. If you combined prime agricultural land with great farmers and commitment, you could feed everyone.”

January 12, 2012

I fall off the locavore wagon two days before my journey was supposed to be over. Ironically, it’s on a dinner date at one of Honolulu’s most popular local food restaurants with a good friend who’s moving away. Still, even these guys can’t guarantee that everything will be local. The food is awesome, the drinks are strong, and even though I’ve technically failed, I know that the chefs, and myself, are all trying.

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