Amid threats to supply chain, officials say Hawaii’s farmers need help

  • MIYAMOTO

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A customer gets a slushie at a Texaco gas station on Monday in Hilo.

The executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau told lawmakers Monday both COVID-19 and the upcoming hurricane season present dual threats to the islands’ food supply.

Noting that 85% of the state’s food is shipped in from elsewhere, Brian Miyamoto told the House Select Committee on COVID-19 that interruptions to the food distribution chain emphasize “the need to support the local production and distribution of food.”

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Mainland meat-packing plants have been particularly susceptible to outbreaks because workers are in close proximity in the production lines.

Facilities in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Georgia and Missouri have been temporarily shuttered because of COVID-19 clusters among their workers.

In addition, workers testing positive for COVID-19 have prompted the closure of at least four Canadian packing plants.

“The food supply chain from the mainland continues to see impacts from the coronavirus. These import supplies have decreased by more than 10%,” Miyamoto said. “Potential outbreaks on farms or in the food distribution chain could result in less food coming in to Hawaii.”

Miyamoto said the shuttering of hotels and restaurants, which has resulted in widespread unemployment in Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economy, means “Hawaii’s farmers are currently suffering,” as well.

“Additionally, once promising markets such as the (Department of Education’s) Farm-to-School Program have nearly vanished as schools across the state remain closed,” he said. “Some farmers markets that have provided a farm-to-customer venue for local food producers also remain closed, affecting many local producers. Many local farmers have lost their customers, their cash flow and have had to lay off workers. Some are in danger of shutting down — shutting down forever.

“Meanwhile, throughout the state, grocery store shelves are seeing less availability of produce as demand grows. Some especially vulnerable residents are unable or unwilling to go to grocery stores in fear of contracting coronavirus.”

Miyamoto hailed as “great news” the Friday announcement by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue that $19 billion will be redirected toward the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program “to directly support farmers and ranchers based on actual losses.”

He added a caveat to that “great news” assessment, however.

“It appears we may not have access to those funds until the end of May,” Miyamoto said. “… If it’s May, for some of these farmers and ranchers, it may be too late.”

During Gov. Ige’s media conference Monday, Alan Oshima, the retired president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric who’s heading the state’s recovery efforts, said that in addition to the money from the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, there’s a $9.5 billion fund from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“As the guidelines come out for a lot of these funds, more help will be on its way,” Oshima said.

Oshima added that Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara, the state’s adjutant general and director of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, is being assisted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency “on food programs not highly publicized.”

“Right now, part of the frustration is that the Office of Budget and Management or the federal agencies have not yet issued specific guidelines to start the funds flowing. But there is help,” Oshima said.

According to Miyamoto, despite an uncertain future, Hawaii’s farmers and ranchers have found novel ways to get food to those who need it most, including farm-to-car and home deliveries, community supported agriculture, and “partnering with local food banks and nonprofit organizations to ensure that local food is being produced and delivered to local households and residents.”

Miyamoto urged lawmakers to step in to help farmers by offering loans, loan and lease-rent forgiveness, ensuring local agricultural products are being used whenever possible in state-run food service settings, and reopening shuttered farmers markets.

“To address the state’s food security in the current times, the state must support local food producers in every way possible. All means must be used to ensure farmers survive this pandemic. We’ve heard a lot about these relief packages … but our farmers need assurances. They are running out of money,” he said. “… With a possible vaccine being at least 12 to 18 months away and hurricane season quickly approaching, we must ensure we support Hawaii’s ag industry.

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“People need to eat.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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