The Crisis In Food Prices

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - May 07, 2008
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On the same day that President Bush was in the Rose Garden encouraging Americans to buy food from farmers, stating that he is “deeply concerned by food prices,” local farmers in Hawaii received devastating news. Their produce, carried to and from Neighbor Islands each day by Aloha Airlines, would no longer be so easily or efficiently transported.

The news came hot on the heels of rapidly increasing supermarket prices and escalating fuel costs. The recession is on its way or likely it’s here, and though we’ve weathered storms before, not many of us have had to endure a food crisis on this global level.

Thankfully, air cargo service is running again, with food from Neighbor Islands continuing its steady supply around Hawaii, but the shock was one that resonated throughout the farming and restaurant community.

“It’s scary,” says Dean Okimoto, president of Hawaii Farm Bureau. “The cargo loss, although temporary, added another dimension to a food situation that’s already in crisis.”

As an island community dependent on Mainland sources for our food, there are many scenarios for which we are woefully unprepared. Okimoto’s predictions for our short-term food future are grim. “My feeling is that food is already becoming unaffordable for some members of the community and it’s certainly going to get worse. What we’re about to see are price increases in the supermarkets that may shock people,” he says. I’m shocked already, having spotted tomatoes at $8 per pound in the supermarket and soybeans up from $2.50 per pound a year ago to $4.99 today.

On the Big Island, Richard Ha, owner of Hamakua Springs Country Farms, has been voicing his concern over sustainability for years.“We have less than a 10-day supply of food,” he says, “should shipping be interrupted, that should concern us all.” Ha has been progressively working toward a more sustainable future for everyone, encouraging local farmers to look to the future and grow accordingly. Hamakua Springs currently produces 2 million pounds of tomatoes each year and more than 6 million pounds of bananas - most of which need transporting from the Big Island. Ha was one of the farmers turned away last Tuesday from Aloha’s cargo department, left scrambling to find other transportation methods for his fruits. He’s also one of the farmers leading the charge to make more people aware of our sustainability issues and the fact that we need to support local farmers now more than ever before.

At the Oahu Farmer’s Market at Kapiolani Community College, more than 5,000 consumers come each week to purchase food that’s fresh and priced low. “That’s going to change too,” says Okimoto. “I’ve always believed that to be competitive, we have to keep our prices as low as possible, but now we’re in a different situation. If farmers don’t raise prices, then we’re not viable - and that’s certainly not competitive.”

And while Okimoto’s Nalo Greens currently sell at the farmers market for $11 per pound and are snatched up by foodies who appreciate their superior quality, taste and freshness, there may be no alternative but a price hike. “The greens will probably increase too,” he says.

At this rate, we’ll all soon be crossing certain foods off our shopping lists. “I think already people in the poorer areas of Honolulu are no longer able to afford certain food items,” says Okimoto.

And at the Hawaii Foodbank, Dick Grimm, agrees.“There’s more demand than ever on our food supply,” he says. “Usually we make around 40 to 42 drops a month to sites where people come for food. In April we made 51,” he says. “What may happen next is that people in need of food will have to take less and less.”

This column has long since championed the cause of farmers and mourned the loss of local dairies and egg farms. It seems that what we feared most is almost upon us.

The Hawaii Foodbank is accepting donations at 279 banks statewide until May 16. Oahu Farmers Markets run Saturdays at Kapiollani Community College, Thursday evenings in Kailua and Sundays in Mililani.

Happy eating.

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