Ka‘ana Mana‘o: Cultivating sustainable agriculture through food innovation

What’s on your table for dinner, and where did it come from? Chances are much of it was shipped from somewhere else. In fact, the state of Hawaii currently imports about 85-90 percent of its food according to Hawaii’s Office of Planning, which developed a series of three reports with the state Department of Agriculture, “Increased Food Security and Food Self-Sufficiency Strategy.” Importing food increases our risk for disruptions should there be a natural disaster or other event that interrupts food shipments to Maui County. At the same time, local farmers find it increasingly challenging to make a profit or even stay in business.

Is it possible to create a sustainable food system on Maui that supports local farmers, preserves agricultural land, provides us with healthy and affordable food choices and increases our food security?

UH-Maui College not only believes it is possible but is working to make it happen on Maui. Through the leadership and assistance of the Maui County Farm Bureau, which first proposed this project, UH-MC engaged national food innovation expert Lou Cooperhouse to develop a plan with community input. Cooperhouse, president and chief executive officer of Food Spectrum, is a leading national authority on food-related business and product development. He developed and served as director of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, which was awarded “Incubator of the Year” by the National Business Incubation Association.

The Maui County Farm Bureau, college and community collaboration identified a “missing link” between and among local farmers and food manufacturers, and value-added food products (i.e., locally manufactured dried, frozen, or canned goods) that could potentially address this issue.

Creating value-added products, though, is more complicated than it may first appear. Agricultural entrepreneurs must generate concepts or ideas, determine if there is a market for their product, develop and test that product in an approved facility, create a business plan, find resources for equipment and investors to provide start-up costs, create a marketing plan, source ingredients for the product, manage budgets, and develop a packaging and manufacturering plan. Building relationships to facilitate communication between local farmers and food manufacturers will also be critical. A food innovation center can help.

To address these challenges, the state Legislature appropriated $1.225 million to fund design and construction for a new facility. The state Department of Agriculture and the Maui County Farm Bureau enlisted UH-MC’s currently unused kitchen that allowed the college to launch a Maui Food Innovation Center, modeled after the Rutgers’ facility. The college leveraged this development and applied for grants. The U.S. Department of Labor through the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program is providing $750,000 for services, education and training; and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture approved $50,000 to fund a feasibility study and business plan.

The food center will serve as a hub for farmers with an oversupply of, or slightly damaged, crops and support food industry businesses considering new products. The center also will provide food-related business and product development services and workforce training. If all goes as planned, the new facility will be housed in the Pilina building on the UH-MC Kahului campus and completed in 2015. The center seeks design solutions for a 3,600 square foot state-of-the-art commercial food processing center, designed for development and production of local products like fresh cut and frozen fruits and vegetables, marinated meats, dried and baked goods, sauces, and juices.

In February and March, Cooperhouse met with farmers and conducted “Food Business Basics” workshops on Molokai and Hawaii. On April 6 at the Maui County Agricultural Festival, he answered questions and participated in panel discussions with local entrepreneurs, such as Melanie Boudar of Sweet Paradise Chocolates, Cathy Nobriga Kim of Roselani Tropics Ice Cream, Anthony LaBua of Maui Preserved, Garrett Marrero of Maui Brewing Co., Shay Smith of Ocean Vodka and Adam Tabura of The Spice Rack. He has also assisted Maui Gold with exploratory discussions around a range of possibilities.

“The FIC is critically needed here,” said Cooperhouse. “It will serve as a catalyst for transforming the food supply throughout Maui County and will be a model for all of the Hawaiian Islands. Locally produced foods will become much more prevalent, and the amount of imported foods will greatly diminish in the coming years.”

For more information about the Food Innovation Center, visit maui.hawaii.edu/foodinnovation.

* Dr. Clyde Sakamoto is chancellor of the University of Hawaii Maui College. Ka’ana Mana’o, which means “sharing thoughts,” is scheduled to appear on the fourth Sunday of each month. It is prepared with assistance from UH-Maui College staff and is intended to provide the community of Maui County information about opportunities available through the college at its Kahului campus and its education centers.