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First Maui Food Hub unites local farmers, online buyers

Drive-thru at UH-MC goes without a hitch

John Dobovan, president of Hawaii Farmers Union United Haleakala Chapter, and Autumn Rae Ness of Beyond Pesticides hold a bag of fresh produce Saturday at Maui Food Hub’s first virtual farmers market distribution at UH-Maui College. VINCENT MINA photo

Maui Food Hub launched its first drive-thru produce pickup Saturday in a virtual farmers market organized by the Hawaii Farmers Union United and others to keep farmers afloat and to offer a distribution network for locally grown produce.

About 53 cars pulled through the University of Hawaii-Maui College this weekend to pick up boxes of fresh food they ordered online from a selection of participating farms.

“All in all, I think it went really well,” said John Dobovan, president of the HFUU Haleakala Chapter. “I mean, you know we’re learning a lot of lessons as we go, but we got everybody’s food to them, and all the customers were very grateful, as were we.”

Local farmers lost their high volume buyers when hotels and restaurants closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Farmers have faced challenges finding new customers for the produce growing in their fields and connecting with residents looking to purchase locally grown food.

To address the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the agricultural industry, the nonprofit HFUU initiated a 12- to 24-month plan and task force to aggregate existing locally produced food from across the state into food hubs.

A customer drives through UH-Maui College on Saturday to pick up fresh produce they purchased online in a virtual farmers market. VINCENT MINA photo

Dobovan, who’s also founder of Kulahaven Farms, said Monday afternoon that the number of suppliers joining the Maui Food Hub online store is growing daily. There were about a dozen local farms participating on launch day Saturday.

“We’re purposefully starting out very small and very slow as we learn,” he said. “This week, we are experimenting with two pickups with Central Maui and one pick for Lahaina and one in Hana.”

After ordering online, which opens again from noon to 10 p.m. Thursday while supplies last, customers pick up their produce from 8 to 11 a.m. each Saturday at UH-MC. The Lahaina pickup will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Choice Health Bar parking lot.

The first drive-thru pickup in Hana will be from 2 to 4 p.m. Friday at the Travaasa Hana hotel. Products available include local vegetables and fruits, meat and fish, baked goods and beverages.

The HFUU task force was created to ensure that small farmers and businesses continue to thrive through the pandemic and amid a global recession, said the Hawaii president and founding member of the organization, Vincent Mina.

The beauty of the food hub is that farmers bring their produce to the hub and get paid on the spot, said Mina, who’s also the Maui County representative on the state Board of Agriculture.

“We want to be able to support the farmer and be able to have cash flow,” he said.

“We’re starting slow and making adjustments as we go,” he added. “This way we can be as efficient as possible to get the produce from the farm to the family.”

Mina thanked the nonprofit Beyond Pesticides, The Healy Foundation, the nonprofit Common Ground Collective, the office of Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino and local ranchers, who have given grants, donations and labor to jump-start the virtual farmers market.

In the coming weeks, Dobovan said that they hope to expand with pickup locations in Kihei, Upcountry and Haiku. They are scouting out areas “with good traffic flow” that will not disrupt the neighboring community, he said.

Mina said the long-term goal is to “deliver it to people where they normally don’t get access to this kind of food, . . . this diversity of this locally grown food.”

“So that’s our intention,” he said.

To place an order and to view the selection of produce, visit MauiFoodHub.org. For more information about the virtual farmers market, email info@mauifoodhubs.org or call (808) 800-3974.

For Hana pickups, online orders can be made at hanafarmersmarket.org. Farmers interested in becoming a supplier for the online farmers market in Hana can email info@hanafarmersmarket.org.

For more information about the nonprofit HFUU, email hfuu@hfuuhi.org.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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