The Truth About Island Farmers Markets

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - June 09, 2010
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You know the Waimanalo corn on sale at the Hawaii Kai market is island fresh

Have you noticed an increase in farmers markets in your neighborhood? Welcome to the new world of Hawaii food shopping, where parking lots across the island are being taken over by farmers selling freshly picked, locally grown produce.

But next time you walk into a tented parking lot to meander the aisles of “fresh” squash, beans and tomatoes, you might want to double check whether the produce came from Kahuku ... or California.

“There are a lot of bogus farmers markets out there,” says Hawaii Farm Bureau president and Waimanalo farmer Dean Okimoto. “And people need to know that it’s not always local produce at these markets. In fact, sometimes there’s no local produce at all.”

There aren’t many of you reading this column who need to be told that a California-grown tomato that takes three weeks to get to Hawaii is no substitute for one that’s plucked from the vine a day before market, but I’m guessing that when you see a tented parking lot, and hand-written signs for tomatoes or beans, you assume they’re locally grown.

Jeanne Vana of North Shore Farms says the problem is widespread, and that people who genuinely believe they are buying fresh local produce are easily deceived.

“It’s really important that people know that many vendors are not farmers selling Hawaii-grown produce.

The produce is bought from a wholesaler - often at a reduced price for quick sale - and then sold as fresh,” she says.

“What most people want is to have a relationship with the farmers and to know where their food comes from. And it’s important to us all that the money generated in Hawaii circulates in our local economy.”

The good news is it’s not that difficult to stop the spread of bogus markets.

“All people have to do is ask where the farm is or where the produce is grown,” says Vana. “You’ll soon know whether it’s local or not.”

The easiest way to make sure your food is island fresh is to shop at markets where the organizers insist that 100 percent of the produce is local. At Hawaii Farm Bureau markets, Haleiwa Sunday market and newer markets in Waianae and Hawaii Kai, there’s a guarantee that everything is local.

“We even require the chefs cooking breakfast to use local eggs,” says Okimoto of the popular “restaurant” booths at Kapiolani Community College.

And there’s more good food news on the horizon as more truly local markets are about to open - including a second market on Sundays at KCC.

“There’s such a demand on Saturdays for our food,” says Okimoto, who reported more than 7,000 people at last Saturday’s KCC market, “it just makes sense to open on Sundays too.” Look for the second KCC market to open in July.

There’s never been a better time to support local farmers and to enjoy the bounty of fresh produce our islands offer. But if we’re going to sustain a thriving movement of local food and encourage its growth, we need to be enthusiastic - yet vigilant - consumers.

Happy eating!

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