Sustainable Hawai’i: Reviving the State’s Wild Roots

Locals in a state that imports 90 percent of its food plan for a more eco-friendly future

Hawaii may seem like an eco-friendly paradise, but a lot of its food is imported.

Everyone I know seems to know someone who lit out for Hawai’i. Maybe it’s because of the world-class beaches — they’re all white sand and crystalline, turquoise waters. Or perhaps it’s the mountains, with their disarming spires and dramatic pleats draped in velvety green. But the real reason I think Hawai’i attracts so many lifelong admirers isn’t the sand, surf, or haunting pinnacles — it’s the food.

Home to poke, malasadas, shaved ice, and other “ono kine grindz,” the Aloha state is a melting pot of cultures and customs, all of which reveal themselves, most exceptionally, in the mouth-watering display on your plate. But Hawai’i, which imports an estimated 90 percent of its food, fertilizer, energy and seed, is uniquely vulnerable to statewide food insecurity in the face of oncoming environmental and economic disturbances.

“[Other states] don’t need to use boats or airplanes to get their products,” said Claire Sullivan, Hawai’i’ purchasing and public affairs coordinator for Whole Foods Market, in a phone interview. “We’re relying on these to get most of our products and it’s currently rendering our supply more vulnerable. For every bit of produce we’re able to source locally, that’s one less thing to get disrupted.”

Whole Foods, whose first Hawai’i location opened in 2008, has worked to facilitate the community’s access to local products. By working with about 110 local farms, including Kumu Farms, Robb Farm, and Ma’o Organic Farms, and 300 local producers like Kuahiwi Ranch, Whole Foods is just one of a handful of companies throughout the state working to contribute to its economic, social, cultural, and ecological vitality.

The last few decades have also seen a surge in homegrown efforts to showcase local products. A recent wave of restaurateurs throughout Hawai’i, most notably in Honolulu and parts of Maui, have drawn inspiration from the area’s local ingredients and its Asian heritage, melding it with their own fine-dining backgrounds. The recent proliferation in farmers’ markets has only amplified this trend, since local ingredients — once scarce — are increasingly available to island chefs and residents looking to utilize local produce, meats, cheeses, and other products in their own cooking.

Earlier this month, the Hawai’i Office of Environmental Quality Control released its 2014 Environmental Council Annual Report, identifying environmental priorities for the state and recommending measures for sustainability. In particular, the report notes that the state should be aiming for 30 percent local food production and 70 percent locally generated, clean energy by 2030.

People have joined the growing local food movement in Hawai’i for a variety of reasons, including concerns over food security and a greater interest in health and nutrition. A December 2011 study by the Hawai’i-based Ulupono Initiative found that an overwhelming majority of island residents place a high value on the “grown in Hawai’i” distinction.


“Being locally grown was most often the second or third most important attribute in determining consumer preference for the six local food products selected for the research,” according to the study. “In some instances, consumers [felt] ‘grown in Hawai’i’ [was] more important than price.”