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County buying local produce to give away

Farm Product Purchase Program sprouts in wake of coronavirus closures

Corazon Augustino carries a cardboard box on her head while while moving to a new section of field to harvest potatoes at Rumbaga Farm in the Kula Agricultural Park on Thursday morning. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Maui County launched a program Thursday that bolsters local farmers who have lost vendors while helping local residents who have lost jobs.

The Farm Product Purchase Program, a partnership between Maui County Farm Bureau and County of Maui, will spend $30,000 weekly for four or five weeks to buy produce from Maui farmers, which then will be distributed for free to people who are unemployed or have reduced work hours due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The county is committing $30,000 a week to buy produce from all our farmers, whether they belong to the co-op, whether they belong to the farmers union, all farmers can sell us produce, we are looking to buy it,” Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino said at a Thursday news conference.

Distribution may be ready late next week at yet-to-be determined sites in Central Maui and in South Maui, said Victorino. He added that the effort will be similar to Monday’s food giveaway by Pukalani Superette and Sysco Hawaii.

“I want to thank Mahi Pono because they were a big part of that distribution,” Victorino said. “It will give direct food to you and your families in a time of need.”

He asked that the free produce be reserved for people who are on unemployment or have reduced work hours or lost jobs amid the pandemic.

“I ask those who don’t need to be there, please don’t come,” he said. “Let those families who are really in need be the ones to come forward.”

Teena Rasmussen, Farm Bureau president, said the program will provide farmers much-needed cash to keep enterprises going and will offer food to families, “who through no fault of their own now find themselves with no paychecks.”

Rasmussen encouraged residents, especially during this time of crisis, to support local farmers by finding Hawaii-produced fruits and vegetables.

“Please seek out and ask for locally-grown produce,” she said.

The Farm Product Purchase Program is designed for commercial farms in active agriculture production on Maui and requires that farmers sold an average of $2,500 per month in produce prior to March. Eligible farmers do not have to be part of the bureau or have any group affiliations, officials said. Application information will be on the bureau and the county websites in the near future.

Meanwhile, farmers with the Hawaii Farmers Union United discussed food hubs and home-delivery options to get local produce directly to consumers.

Union President Vincent Mina said at the news conference that farmers are pivoting from restaurant and hotel accounts, which provided 30 to 50 percent of their incomes, and instead are aggregating food into food hubs and commercial kitchens, where it will be sorted into community-supported agriculture boxes of fresh vegetables, fruit and immune-boosting herbs. Information for online orders and other details will be on the union website at hfuuhi.org.

“We are not looking for a free lunch, we are looking to produce it,” Mina said. “We’re all pooling together as one, as agriculturalists, and showing the importance of what our local agricultural systems can produce.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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