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Food Security: What Happens When The Boat Stops

WRITTEN BY JON LETMAN

MORE THAN ANY YEAR in recent memory, 2018 underscored the need for Hawai‘i’s 1.4 million residents to be better prepared for sudden or prolonged disruptions to imported food.

From record flooding in April to ongoing volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and wildfires over the summer, Hawai‘i’s annus horribilis continued with hurricanes and near misses. Again and again, Hawai‘i has been reminded that while its vulnerability to natural and man-made disasters is not unique, Hawai‘i’s location makes those vulnerabilities more challenging to overcome.

If you live in Hawai‘i, you’re probably familiar with the Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency’s preparedness guidelines that recommend stocking at least two weeks’ worth of non-perishable food, water, and other critical supplies. It wasn’t always like this.

REVIVING A CONSERVATION ETHIC

Prior to Western contact in 1778, Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) built a culture anchored in self-sufficiency. That conservation ethic of being prepared for scarcity is reflected in the Hawaiian proverb, E ‘ai i kekahi, e kāpī i kekahi (eat some, salt some).

Even if Hawai‘i can’t return to that degree of self-sufficiency, few would question the need to achieve greater food autonomy. It may be instructive to look back to the recent past, using the sugar plantation-era as a model of preparedness.

Alberta de Jetley, publisher of the Lanai Times newspaper has lived her whole life on Moloka‘i, Maui, and Lāna‘i. She remembers when people lived closer to the earth and grew more of their own food. Today, however, she says that’s just not a realistic proposition with limited land available for farming on Lāna‘i.

De Jetley believes that in the event of a major food crisis, community-organized kitchens, combined with hunting and fishing, would keep people fed, at least temporarily. But de Jetley ran her own 18-acre farm for a dozen years, and she thinks very few of Lāna‘i’s 3,400-plus residents are in a position to grown their own food, heavily reliant as they are on weekly barge deliveries.

Lāna‘i is almost wholly owned by tech billionaire Larry Ellison who is building Sensei Farms, equipped with hydroponic greenhouse facilities reportedly costing $15 million. Considering Lāna‘i’s high cost of living, the farm could offer local residents some relief.

Not far from Ellison’s operation, David Embrey owns Kumu Ola Farms, a two-acre organic aquaponic vegetable farm- one of just four farms operating on Lāna‘i. When the weekly barge that serves the island was halted last summer due to passing hurricanes, Embrey was able to help feed the island’s people. When facing emergency food shortages, he suggests focusing on a handful of crops.

“There are certain vegetables that I have on my farm, that if a hurricane came here, wiped out the whole [thing], we won’t get a barge for two months. We can survive just off my little farm. I can probably feed three thousand people.”

If someone wanted to grow just a few highly versatile, nutrition-packed crops that could feed a family during a food shortage, Embrey recommends the kalamungay (Moringa oleifera) tree, ong choy (water spinach), sweet potato, taro and cabbage. All of these vegetables can be prepared as soups and stews which is the key to feeding people, Embrey says. “Any time you have a disaster, you’re looking at soups.”

MORE MOUTHS TO FEED

In the event of a crisis, it’s not just local residents who would face empty shelves. Hawai‘i’s tourism numbers have risen sharply from 7 million arrivals in 2010 to over 9 million in 2017, with more than 10 million expected in 2019.

With over 80,000 hotel, timeshare and other tourist-targeted units across Hawai‘i, the question arises: What responsibility do lodging providers have to feed their guests in times of crisis and food shortage?

Both the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority and Hawai‘i Lodging & Tourism Association were contacted for this story, but neither responded to requests for comment.

LESSONS FROM THE LAND OF ‘INIKI

When Hurricane ‘Iniki struck Kaua‘i on September 11, 1992, JoAnn Yukimura was mayor. She recalls that in the early 1990s, many on Kaua‘i were already used to “living in the woods” and were a bit more self-reliant than people in urban communities. After ‘Iniki, Yukimura remembers neighbors coming together, sharing and helping each other.

In the quarter of a century since ‘Iniki, Hawai‘i’s population has only swelled, resulting in greater reliance on imported food. With only a 7–14 day supply of imported food, what will people do when the barges stop and the shelves go bare?

One person who has given this scenario careful consideration is planning consultant Juan Wilson of Hanapēpē, Kaua‘i. Living off the grid since 2014, Wilson draws water from four sources: a ditch that feeds his taro fields, rooftop-collected rainwater, a 500 gallon well-fed tank, and county water. “I never think about buying bottled water,” Wilson says, “It would never even occur to me.”

On just three-quarters of an acre, Wilson and his wife Linda grow kalo (taro), cassava, and ‘ulu (breadfruit), all of which produce nutritious starchy food that can be stored frozen. They also grow their own citrus, papaya, pineapple, avocados and bananas.

Together with chickens for eggs and bees for honey, macadamia nuts, and cacao, Wilson reckons he’s prepared for almost anything. So are his neighbors who hunt, fish, and grow food. Wilson explains, “…the local people in my valley are related to each other and pull together to get things done. They generally don’t look to the government for advice or help.”

But Wilson argues that preparedness is more than just having a pantry full of Spam or growing your own vegetables. He thinks it’s time to re-examine how Hawai‘i’s land is zoned.

“One big problem in the expanding, small-plot suburbia of Kaua‘i is you must have a car and be in debt,” Wilson says. “You aren’t permitted to do the things needed to have your own food, water, energy, and a livelihood.”

READY OR NOT

Wilson admits that being well-prepared comes at a cost—both financially and in the time required to plan and build home infrastructure and maintain crops. It took him about a decade to reach the point where he has created a softer landing in case of a sudden catastrophe or crisis. If that sounds alarmist, think back to the morning of January 13, 2018 when cell phones across Hawai‘i lit up with the message:

BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII.

SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

False alarms notwithstanding, in a crisis or perceived crisis, well-stocked stores can be stripped bare, gas stations pumped dry and a jungle order can descend quickly. Mayhem is not limited to post-Katrina New Orleans or economic collapse in Caracas, Venezuela.

A FOOD DESERT IN THE PACIFIC?

Megan Fox, executive director of Mālama Kaua‘i, a nonprofit that advocates for a more sustainable island, says it’s useful to create your own local resources to reduce reliance on imported food. “As we start seeing more frequent weather and transportation disruptions, more people are starting to pay attention,” she says.

Fox adds that when possible food disruptions are predicted — as in the case of a hurricane — it can be helpful to be in contact with farmers who may be rushing to harvest and sell fresh produce quickly to avoid a loss.

Another Kaua‘i resident, disaster preparedness consultant Bart Abbott, says that while local diversified agriculture can buffer Hawai‘i against imported food shortages, crops like taro can be decimated by a natural disaster, especially if they’re being grown in flood plains.

Abbott urges people to learn how to preserve their own food. Whether canned, dried, pickled, or fermented, he suggests starting with nutritious foods you already eat — things like kimchi or preserved root crops such as taro, sweet potato, and other foods that can be stored for a long time.

A crisis needn’t be apocalyptic to interrupt food imports. Abbot points to climate disruptions and economic malaise as factors that could lead to imported foods becoming unavailable or unaffordable for extended periods. Those in lower income brackets would most likely be the first to feel the pinch. Ironically, they are the people who can least afford to prepare for food shortages.

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, nearly 10 percent of Hawai‘i’s population lives below the poverty line, with rates much higher in specific communities. The Hawai‘i Food Bank reports it provides food assistance to one in five island residents.

Abbott suggests a greater emphasis on family and community farms and making more land available for small farmers. If imported food disruptions become common, he imagines it could lead to people reducing their normal 5-day work week to three or four days, allowing them time to tend their own food gardens.

Empty Produce Shelf:
Photography by Denise Laitinen

THE CAN AND THE CAN NOTS

Denise Laitinen lives in Puna on Hawai‘i Island where she has over a dozen years’ experience volunteering with disaster preparedness groups. Laitinen has seen empty grocery store shelves caused by something as simple as a delay in barges.

“At any given time, any supermarket on the Big Island only has a 20 day supply of food on hand,” Laitinen says. “Add to that the fact that every airport in the state is in a tsunami inundation zone.” Because imported items are largely routed through the port of Honolulu, the whole state is, to a degree, dependent on one port.

Laitinen says that while kama‘aina know how food-insecure Hawai‘i is, newcomers don’t fully appreciate Hawai‘i’s geographic isolation. “That reality doesn’t fully set in until you are actually faced with no power for two weeks,” Laitinen says. “You think that you will respond to a disaster in a certain way, but then when that disaster happens, things may not go the way you had planned.”

She recalls tropical storm Iselle in 2014 when Big Island residents were trapped in their homes, main roads were blocked, and keeping ice frozen became a major concern, not only for food, but medicine as well. Fortunately Hilo had power and although people were eager to help for the first few days, as Laitinen points out, enthusiasm can flag as the weeks drag into months.

Last May, after the Kīlauea volcano began erupting, over 500 people in shelters instantly needed to be fed. In response, affected residents created ‘Pu ‘uhonu o Puna, a hub to help the community. As roads were cut off and stores became empty, some residents were forced to flee their homes to avoid becoming isolated by lava flows. Others, Laitinen says, were already growing and raising their own food and had no reason to escape.

So if you have food trees, crops, a few goats or chickens and a reliable water source, will you be ok? What about the rest of the state? Juan Wilson in Hanapēpē says even people living in urban and suburban communities can take steps to cushion the blow of a major food disruption.

First, he urges people to collect as much energy and water from their roof as possible. Invest in a Berkey or similar filtration system, at least to get you through a few weeks without county water. Next, grow food in raised beds in your yard or even some potted leafy greens in an edible lanai garden. Even better, connect with a community garden. Wilson also urges people to live in a community where they aren’t dependent on cars to get around.

Wilson suggests people “energy up” as much as their property and finances will allow, even if it is minimal. You don’t need a mega-expensive system to improve your ability to weather an extended power outage. Even a $125 wet cell battery, $100 panel, $75 inverter and a couple of light bulbs will improve your ability to weather a disruption. Start small and build up as you see fit. “It’s a huge difference if you have lights or don’t,” he says, in case things really hit the fan.

Empty supermarket shelves, Wilson believes, could lead to serious unrest, possibly riots. Being prepared, he says, is finding ways to be independent of those things that, if they come down, will be life threatening.

“You’ll have what happens the day after Thanksgiving — Black Friday,” Wilson says. “That’s the problem — that is the future.” [eHI]

River: Wailuku River Photography by Hokuao Pellegrino August 2018