Food for thought

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Since its inception in 2017, Common Ground Collective has made its mark on Maui’s food and farm scenes. Shown (from left) are chef and farmer James Simpliciano, Common Ground Collective Executive Director Jennifer Karaca and Common Ground Collective board members Terese Masters, Nicolas Timpone, Ananda Stone, Gordean Kakalia and Paulette Scheffer.

Are the banana trees in your backyard bearing more fruit than you can eat? Do you have a surplus of veggies growing in your garden? Too many avocados on your hands?

It may seem like a good problem to have, but an ample harvest can lead to a wasted opportunity.

“Unfortunately, a lot of produce goes to waste,” explained Jennifer Karaca, co-founder and executive director of Common Ground Collective, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that — among many other things — collects and distributes fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables that may otherwise go unharvested.

Through its newly launched foster farming project (which is currently limited to the Upcountry and north shore areas), Common Ground Collective pulls, picks and plucks the excess bounty from participating landowners’ properties twice a week. And where does it go? That’s up to the landowner. Common Ground Collective can donate it to a nonprofit of their choice or sell it on their behalf and keep all or a percentage of the proceeds to support the program. The objective, Karaca said, is to get more homegrown produce into restaurants, grocery stores, schools, kitchens and food-insecure households across the island.

“The more locally grown food we have to eat, the better,” she said. “Any way you cut it, it’s a win-win for everyone.”

Jennifer Karaca is the co-founder and executive director of Common Ground Collective, a nonprofit organization that puts Maui’s food security front and center.

Karaca says food availability has been a top-of-mind issue since childhood. As a kid growing up in Washington state, she learned about the vital importance of food and resourcefulness from her grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression. Karaca said her grandmother’s stories left a lasting impression. So much, in fact, that she went on to study farming, gardening, permaculture design, integrated pest management, systems thinking and regenerative agriculture.

Karaca says her interest reached a crescendo when she moved to Maui in 2012. That’s when she discovered Hawaii imports 90 percent of its food — and became steadfastly determined to do something about it. Not long after earning a bachelor’s degree in sustainable science management from UH-Maui College, she and a fellow classmate, Terese Masters (who now serves as president of Common Ground Collective’s board of directors), brainstormed ways they could simultaneously tackle food insecurity, boost local food production, promote environmental education and create more economic opportunities on Maui.

And that’s when a plan began to take shape.

In 2017, after a flurry of preparation and paperwork, Common Ground Collective made its debut with a vision to fill gaps in Maui’s agricultural sector and “create a place where anyone with land, a farm or agricultural-related business or aspirations of farming can find the help and connections they need to be more successful.”

It may sound like a tall order, but in the space of two years, the fledgling nonprofit has made considerable headway. Apart from launching the foster farming project, it has hosted and participated in a number of educational events; collaborated with local food advocates and organizations; played the role of matchmaker between farmers and chefs to ensure restaurants use as many homegrown ingredients as possible; and spearheaded a pilot project to demonstrate the tax advantages of investing in agriculture. During the 2018-19 school year, Karaca rounded up 1,400 pounds of Maui-grown produce for the American Heart Association’s Kids Cook with Heart program, which pairs local chefs with Lahaina-area schools to teach students how to prepare healthy meals for themselves and their families.

Common Ground Collective also is working to secure funding (through donations, grants and the foster farming project) to expand its mobile farming services, which include installations, maintenance and emergency farm assistance. “We want to be a full-service one-stop-shop to help landowners with their properties,” Karaca said. “Our goal is to keep families on their farms, create more jobs on farms, and get more locally grown food out into the community. I couldn’t ask for anything better to contribute my time to.”

And she says the nonprofit is just getting started. “We’ve barely scratched the surface of what we can do,” Karaca said. “We are a small organization that works hard with the little we have. We have done a lot in two years, and I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished. I know we will continue to grow, and 10 years from now, I’m hoping it will be bigger than I could have ever imagined.”

To learn more about Common Ground Collective or to inquire about donor or volunteer opportunities, visit www.commongroundcollective.com or email info@commongroundcollective.com. For more information about the foster farming project, visit commongroundcollective.com/foster-farming.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.