Rob Parsons

Garden of plenty

Maui could learn a lesson from Kauai's sustainable-food movement

By Rob Parsons
Published in Maui Time Weekly
February 26, 2009

Hanalei taro fields
Hanalei taro fields.

Maui Sierra Club strongly opposes putting DOCARE under Public Safety as it will dilute their primary role as protectors of the environment.

As a longtime Maui resident, it's impossible to travel to a neighbor island without recognizing subtle and distinct differences, not only in the natural topography and developed landscapes but in the community vibe as well. A long weekend jaunt to Kauai offered the opportunity to reflect upon how we view one of the basic necessities of life-food.

Despite encroaching economic hardships and recent dissertations on sustainability, there has been almost no perceptible shift in Maui's comprehension of the urgent need to grow more food for local consumption. Likewise, the community at large has yet to understand the long-term benefits of producing and consuming healthy fresh fruits and vegetables, as opposed to packaged, processed, imported fare.

Spending a few days on the Garden Isle allowed me to observe a grassroots support for local food, with efforts ranging from farmer's markets to seed exchanges; from exotic tropical fruit cultivation to a glorious publication highlighting food production throughout the Hawaiian islands.

With an estimated 65,000 residents, Kauai is about half as populated as Maui. Kauai simply feels more rural, more country-style.

Leaving the economy-sized airport at Lihue and heading north, one is quickly soothed by open space views of the mountains and ocean. Visitors landing on Maui, by contrast, soon are in bumper-to-bumper traffic, driving through a commercial gauntlet of big box stores, fast-food franchises and gas stations, hemmed in with overhead power lines and acres of parking lots.

Then, upon passing through the urban sprawl of Kahului, the Maui visitor views vast fields in the central valley planted to sugar cane, vestiges of the old plantation paradigm that once flourished. A few miles south, towards Maalaea and Kihei, are Monsanto plantings of genetically modified corn-indicative of 21st century corporate agri-business's worldwide control of our food supply.

Yet I observed encouraging trends in food production, purchasing and sharing from our neighbors on Kauai. There are indications that cohesiveness of community, the very quality that helped them mend after the ferocious devastation left behind Hurricane Iniki in 1992, may guide the island towards better self-sufficiency.

Like each of the major Hawaiian Islands, Kauai is a study in contrasts. The drier south side of the island supports coffee growing, Pioneer biotech seed corn and Hawaii's other remaining sugar cane operation, Gay & Robinson at Kekaha (which is transitioning out of the commodity sugar business into ethanol production). And there are vast expanses of red volcanic soil.

Kauai's wetter north side displays a stunning backdrop of time-sculpted, verdant mountains, interlaced with meandering rivers that also irrigate hundreds of taro lo`i. In the center of town stands the old building where Hanalei Poi Company has processed the revered Hawaiian staple food for decades, a 2-foot tall stone poi pounder gracing the tiny front lawn.

Just behind is a large field where locals and visitors gather each Saturday morning for a farmer's market, one of several that happen throughout the week islandwide. Fresh greens, fruits, flowers, veggie starts and even small fruit trees are on display. A steady stream of customers flows through, stocking up for the coming week.

In the spirit of buying and eating food grown locally, I bought my first-ever perfectly ripe chocolate sapote, an exotic fruit native to Mexico and Guatemala. Sometimes called black sapote, black persimmon or chocolate pudding fruit, the ripe flesh is the color and texture of cake frosting, but not as sugary.

In nearby Kilauea, I noticed that the Healthy Hut natural food store not only carried local farm goods, but also had a rack of vegetable starts at the shop's entryway. Our hosts had just tilled up a large portion of their backyard to expand their own garden, while a variety of young fruit trees lined the other end of the property.

Bill Robertson of Ahonui Farms in Moloa`a is one of Kauai's many organic farmers, with 10 acres planted in vegetables, herbs and fruits. Specializing in rare tropical fruits, he also tends an orchard with 45 longan trees and 300 rambutans (both relatives to the lychee), planted a dozen years ago. Many are sold locally, while he also ships the outrageous-looking, hairy-tendriled red fruits to Honolulu.

One of the most inspiring efforts taking place on Kauai is that of Paul Massey of Regenerations Botanical Garden. Based in Kapahi on Kauai's east side, Regenerations conducts a variety of related programs, with a mission of maintaining plant diversity through community-based stewardship.

Their lists of programs includes: research; cultural/community development; propagation; seed banking; field collection and monitoring; habitat management; and communication/education/training.

Massey also helps coordinate a periodic seed exchange, a free event that has met with growing success. Their third biannual community seed exchange will take place March 7 at Koloa Neighborhood Center, with an educational slide show presentation and music.

Participants are asked to bring GMO-free, pest-free, non-invasive seeds, plants and cuttings to share with one another. Even those with no seeds or plants to share are invited to take something home with them to plant, thus ensuring they'll have something to contribute at the next exchange.

Back in Kilauea town, we visited the Kilauea Fish Market, tucked away in the back of a group of old stone buildings at the Historical Plantation Center.

There, while waiting for an order of stir-fry ahi and vegetables, I discovered the delicious magazine, Edible Hawaiian Islands.

Far from a tourist publication, the quarterly highlights efforts, "towards a more sustainable and safe food system in the Hawaiian Islands." It is the brainchild of Gloria Cohen of nearby Princeville, who launched the magazine nearly two years ago.

Adorned with gorgeous photographs and sumptuous writing and recipes throughout, Edible Hawaiian Islands follows a mission, says Cohen, "to celebrate family farmers, bakers, fishermen, ranchers, poultry farmers, local chefs and the rest of the community for their dedication to producing the highest quality fresh and seasonal foods."

Cohen, who first came to Hawaii as a teen and has also lived in Lahaina and on North Shore Oahu, saw a similar publication back on the East Coast. Edible Communications Publications originally began as a newsletter in Ojai, California, and has spread widely. When Gloria purchased the licensing for Edible Hawaiian Islands, there were 29 such publications. Today, less than two years later, there are 54. While all are individually owned, they "stick together," and are able to pool resources and ideas to help support one another.

Cohen says the magazine, dependent upon advertisers, has yet to make a profit, but is her labor of love, her way of giving back to the local community and cultures that have given her so much.

"It's just been amazing," Cohen says. "Hawaii possesses such an astonishing amount of fascinating people doing great things to bring good food to our community and visitors. There is so much to tell, and so much diversity in the ethnicities represented throughout the islands."

She strives to spread the word to help foster real local food sustainability. Each issue has a comprehensive list of farmer's markets on several islands. "People cried after the first issue came out," Cohen says. "Market vendors and growers were so touched that someone was paying attention to what they are doing."

Each issue, coinciding with the four seasons, contains stories about each of the major islands. The current issue has book reviews of Ali`i Chang's The Maui Book of Lavender and the Maui Culinary Academy's cookbook Taste of Maui. A feature article also provides an inside look to Maui Community College's Pai`na Culinary Arts facility and program.

"The back page is always an exotic fruit or interesting local food," says Cohen. Pohole fern, cultivated by Hana Herbs & Flowers and others, is featured in the current issue.

Recipes are, of course, also included, embellished with delectable photos. Even those jaded by the overkill given to Pacific Rim Cuisine and celebrity chefs will find something to like in this magazine.

Cohen says that half of her subscribers are from the Mainland and that she has readers from as far away as Europe. She often hears that it helps people feel more connected to the real Hawaii, not just someone interested in selling a helicopter tour or other activity.

Clearly, many local residents have yet to reconcile their attachment to the convenience of polyethylene plastic-packed foods, as one would find when buying apples, pies or sushi at Costco. And for many, flavor trumps nutrition, though hopefully there is emerging awareness of what truly constitutes a healthy diet.

We have a long way to go on Maui before we can claim substantial progress towards food self-sufficiency. Following the example of some of our Kauai neighbors may help us make an intelligent-not to mention tasty-transition.