Speakers talk food access, self-reliance at summit

  • Michael Brestovansky/Tribune-Herald From left to right, Kristin Albrecht, Judy Donovan and Kamuela Enos present a panel on improving food access.

More than a hundred Big Island farmers, gardeners, officials and more gathered in Hilo Thursday for the second annual Hawaii Island Community Food Summit.

At a ballroom beneath the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel, attendees discussed with panelists how to improve access to locally sourced food throughout the county.

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Carol Ignacio, community affairs manager for the Blue Zones Project on Hawaii Island, said this year’s Summit will follow up on results from last year’s inaugural Summit, which set three goals that were fulfilled to varying extents in the last year.

That list of accomplishments includes the appointment of the county’s first Food Access Coordinator, Silvan Shawe, who introduced her successor, Sarah Freeman, at the start of the Summit.

Other successes since the first Summit include stronger support for new and existing farmer co-ops, new programs and courses providing education to young farmers and ranchers, the development of an Agritourism Directory and more.

“The only way for us to go forward is to join together,” Ignacio said. “We can paddle together at different speeds, but we have to paddle in the same direction.”

Ignacio said the Summit will hopefully help connect followers of different disciplines in order and unify them toward a common goal of improving local food production on the island.

Addressing attendees, Ignacio said disagreements and infighting between different schools of thought — such as between supporters and opponents of GMOs or cattle farming — is the primary obstacle interfering with food self-reliance on the island.

That term, “self-reliance,” is key, Ignacio said. Dreams of a fully sustainable Big Island, wholly independent from mainland food trade, are unrealistic in modern society, she said: “I don’t think people are going to start growing wheat here.”

But self-reliance, growing enough essential food for the island to comfortably survive without mainland commerce, is possible, Ignacio said, so long as enough people work together.

Chadd ‘Onohi Paishon, a navigator with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, addressed attendees as the Summit’s keynote speaker, comparing the Big Island to life on a voyaging canoe.

“The time we have on the deck of a canoe is very short,” Paishon said. “And the time we have here is very short.”

By improving community food education, Paishon said the Voyaging Society is now able to provision voyaging canoes entirely with supplies grown and produced on the Big Island. That change not only improved the health of the canoe’s crew, Paishon said, but created a new generation of community members who are capable of thriving on their own.

Although Paishon shared a success story, there is still much room for improvement on the island. Kristin Frost Albrecht, executive director of The Food Basket, said about half of the Big Island has been classified as a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a term signifying that low-income residents have limited access to affordable, healthy food.

At a panel about improving healthy food access for the community, panelists were asked what single change would help improve food access the most. Albrecht answered that significant governmental support behind community food programs is the clearest way forward, to an appreciative cheer from the audience.

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Several elected officials were present at the Summit, including councilmen Tim Richards and Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder, as well as state Sen. Russell Ruderman, although they did not address the audience.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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