Puna retreat plans nonprofit grocery store

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Like many in lower Puna, LJ Bates has a story to tell about the aftermath of last year’s Tropical Storm Iselle and how, despite isolation and lengthy power outages, communities rose to meet the challenge.

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Like many in lower Puna, LJ Bates has a story to tell about the aftermath of last year’s Tropical Storm Iselle and how, despite isolation and lengthy power outages, communities rose to meet the challenge.

He is sitting under a canopy tent at the Kalani Retreat Center, a jungle getaway along the rugged Puna coast popular with young travelers eager for a more authentic Hawaii experience.

Passing rain showers dance on the roof as guests, who stay in cottages or tents nestled in the 120-acre resort, gather on a nearby lanai for lunch between Hawaiian culture and yoga classes.

“The way that it started, I will never forget this,” said Bates, the nonprofit retreat’s executive director.

“A man got out of his car and he had four papaya with him. He said, ‘This is all I have to feed the kids in my car. I can’t make it to Pahoa. I barely have enough gas to get home. What do I do?’

“I said, ‘You take this papaya home and you take this bag and fill it up with the food your family needs.’”

That scene would be repeated hundreds of times during the next two weeks as the retreat became a place of refuge for residents left without electricity and cutoff from the rest of the island by countless fallen trees.

Puna persevered but the experience made it clear to Bates that residents along the Kapoho-Kalapana Road, also known as “Red Road,” can’t continue to rely on shopping centers tens of miles away to meet their basic needs.

The area is one of the poorest in Hawaii County and one of its most isolated.

Motivated also by a mission to improve the area’s sustainability and support local farmers, Bates and other Kalani staff began planning to open a nonprofit grocery store in “Hale Aloha” at their entrance near Kalapana Seaview Estates and Kehena Beach.

The 1,500-square-foot building was most recently home to the retreat’s front desk where sandwiches, cold drinks and ice cream were sold.

But, when it reopens sometime this fall as the “Market at Kalani,” customers will be able to find everything from locally grown produce to home and health products, with the retreat leveraging its buying power with vendors to make it an affordable and abundant shopping center.

“We are the agency with the capacity to do such a thing without opening it up to a commercial venture,” Bates said.

“That’s one of the things we want to protect down here is the feeling of lower Puna.”

In Puna style, he said the market will host classes on cooking, organic gardening and healthy living.

Bates also hopes to offer members discounts on other events and classes at the retreat. The market is modeled after a cooperative, so membership will be required to support its operations.

“We’re looking at how we can elevate the health and wellbeing of this area and create job openings,” Bates said. About 20 people will be employed.

Annual membership now costs $45. Shoppers who haven’t signed up will be charged $1 per visit.

Lifetime memberships of $1,000 and discounts for low-income residents are available.

Bates said the grocery store has 200 members through early enrollment with a goal of reaching 500 by Sept. 1. Those who sign up now receive six extra months on their membership.

But what about prices? Bates said they will be about 3 to 7 percent lower than other stores, all while reducing vehicle trips to Pahoa.

“This is a true nonprofit operation teaching about wellness, teaching about community, teaching about access and environmental impact,” he said.

Bates said the idea for the store partially came out of the “modern ahupuaa” lectures that Kalani sponsored during the past year. The goal, he said, is to combine modern technology with traditional land stewardship as a means to reach sustainability.

“What we said is that sustainability doesn’t happen next Tuesday,” Bates said. “Just because you put a row of cucumbers in, we’re not done.

“We always held the conversation about the transition. This market is meant to be that transition.”

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For more information, visit kalani.com/themarket or call 965-0468.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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