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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bountiful benefits to buying locally grown, fresh foods year-round

By Sandra Lee Kunimoto

The economic challenges Hawai'i residents face have brought increasing attention to the benefits of "buying local," in particular locally grown foods. It's a concept that should always be on our minds, not just when times are hard. As the popular Made in Hawai'i Festival begins this weekend, consumers should pay closer attention to where the produce and products they buy are grown and made.

Some of the reasons to "buy local" are simple. Others are not as obvious. Purchasing locally grown produce keeps the money flowing through our community. When you purchase foods grown elsewhere, you are supporting agribusinesses in other areas. Also, the nutritional content of locally grown foods is often higher, since many vegetables begin to lose their nutritional value after they are picked.

If you're not sure of the origin of the produce, we suggest asking your supermarket produce manager where the various fruits and vegetables were grown. You can also support Hawai'i farmers by letting retailers know that you want to see more locally grown foods in their stores.

The growing popularity of farmers' markets all over the state is a positive sign of the premium residents and visitors are placing on local produce. Farmers' markets also allow consumers to know where their food was grown a notion from decades ago that seems to be returning.

Like farmers' markets, the Buy Fresh, Buy Local program aims to strengthen the connection between the farmer and the consumer. The program is a collaborative effort between the University of Hawai'i's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, Hawai'i Farm Bureau Federation and Hawai'i Department of Agriculture. Consumers can find information about the program online (www.hawaii.gov/hdoa/add/add_md/bfbl.

It is estimated that 90 percent of the food consumed in our state is imported. Given this statistic, it is clear that a disruption in our current food distribution system would have dire consequences for all of us. Increasing our food security means growing more food locally. For that to occur, consumers must make conscious decisions to buy locally whenever possible.

Most farmers in Hawai'i have small operations and farm less than 10 acres. They are not the mega-farms that are prevalent on the Mainland. They include family operations that have been passed down through generations and new farms that have been established by immigrants seeking better opportunities for their families. Today's tight economy affects all of these farmers in ways that are not always apparent. For instance, jumps in fuel costs have dramatically increased the cost of fertilizers, some of which are derived from natural gas and petroleum products. Worldwide competition for fertilizer has also contributed to driving market prices higher.

Feed costs for local egg, milk and meat producers have also skyrocketed over the past few years. Of course, compounding the cost of the feed itself is the rising cost of transportation. Act 221, which was passed by the Legislature and enacted by Gov. Lingle in the 2007 legislative session has provided a measure of relief in the form of the Livestock Feed Reimbursement Program, which is aiding livestock operators with feed costs. But more help is needed.

There is no scarcity of agricultural challenges in our state. High land costs, global competition, rising energy costs, drought, pest management and the shortage of farm labor are just a few. That said, farmers have always been strong and resilient members of our community. They deserve our support when times are good, but especially when times are difficult.

The next time you're at the supermarket and have a choice between buying an apple or a local pineapple, choose the pineapple. If you're deciding between a peach or a local mango, pick the mango. Make it a point to purchase eggs with the "Island Fresh" symbol. Look for the "Hawai'i Seals of Quality" sticker, which ensures the highest quality products such as honey, fresh herbs and papaya. Buy local leafy greens instead of Mainland-packaged salad mixes. Try the locally grown specialty tomatoes, sweet melons, watermelons, corn, cucumbers, asparagus and large array of Asian vegetables. Choose Island-raised beef, pork and aquaculture products. By doing so, you are making an investment in Hawai'i and in our food security.

Sandra Lee Kunimoto is the chairperson of the Hawai'i Board of Agriculture and director of the Hawai'i Department of Agriculture. She wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.