by Diana Duff
Special To West Hawaii Today
Those of us in attendance at the November Kona Town Meeting on food sustainability were not surprised to see Ken Love as one of the speakers. A vigilant supporter of “buying local” and a long-time champion of growing exotic fruit for local consumption, his low blood pressure was obviously raised as he talked about the charade he finds in some local stores. Sellers anxious to join the “buy local” campaign are sometimes stretching the limits and confusing consumers who really want to eat food grown as close to home as possible.
Ken’s main prop was a box of “Hawaii Ginger” with “Produce of China” in smaller type on the same box. “So, is this local produce?” he asked. A resounding “no” echoed through the Makaeo Events Pavilion.
Ken advised those present to look for the COOL, or Country of Origin Label, stickers on produce. These can help you choose fruit and vegetables grown in locations that match your buying preferences. If you don’t see the stickers, ask for them.
Research shows that consumers often prefer locally grown produce, but they can be confused if produce is labeled incorrectly or not at all. Shoppers looking for local products are often deceived by misleading signage. Locally grown crops need to be marked clearly and correctly. “Hawaii Grown” stickers could really help.
“You have to be careful,” Ken cautioned. “Just because produce is in an area of the store defined as ‘local’ it is not always locally grown. If your favorite store doesn’t even have a ‘local’ section, you need to ask them to create one, now.”
Ken went on to report that the Chinese ginger from the box he was holding was currently being sold in a market bin in Kona along with ginger from Hilo. Only a few people can tell the difference by appearance. Many can taste the difference, however. Though the bin was marked U.S. and China, consumers are often looking at the ginger rather than the sign. They also may not recognize the difference and they probably won’t have a chance to taste the ginger before they leave the market.
Ken advised those at the meeting that if they really want to buy local, they might need to spend some time in the produce section asking questions. “When you reach for a green bell pepper, know that peppers are brought in from at least five countries. Bins of peppers may contain some local peppers but may also contain peppers from a variety of other places.” The lack of proper labeling by growers or correct signage from sellers presents a dilemma for consumers.
Perhaps the multilevel negative impact of importing ginger from China is not well understood. Bringing foreign produce to Hawaii, especially in misleading boxes, can harm consumers, growers and the overall health of the community. With lower standards and lax government regulations in some countries, foreign produce may have excessive pesticide residues and other dangerous chemicals present. With severe cuts in Hawaii’s agricultural inspectors, checking for harmful chemicals is less thorough and many new insects and diseases sneak in as well. Government officials have told Ken they were only able to thoroughly check about 10 percent of imported goods. Off the record he was told it was more like 3 percent, if that.
Beyond the potential dangers to consumers, as well as our crops, importing products that are also grown here forces Hawaiian farmers to constantly compete with low overseas prices for major crops like ginger, taro, bananas and avocados, as well as other fruits, vegetables and herbs. The companies that import and distribute inferior overseas products at prices below what local farmers can afford to charge are not doing any of us a favor.
In a small but competitive market like Kona, grocery markets have to fight for survival. No matter how dedicated they are to the buying local, they still have to stock products like bananas, ginger, taro and avocados. Sadly, many markets don’t go out of their way to obtain locally grown items and prefer the ease of buying from wholesalers of offshore produce.
Often produce managers who are offered locally grown alternatives will buy them. Farmers need to encourage stores and wholesalers to carry their produce. Ken’s bottom line is we need more local produce, properly marked and prominently placed in local markets. Then the “buy local” campaign can have the positive effects it promises including food sustainability.
Of course, when in doubt, shop at a local farmer direct market.
Tropical gardening helpline
Barrie asks: I’ve had enough of the problems associated with our lack of ag inspectors. Some of us are starting a citizen action committee in Waimea as part of the Hawaii Early Detection Network. Could you spread the word?
Answer: Certainly. This is a great idea. I am happy to spread the word.
Folks in Waimea are getting together a citizen action group of pest spotters called “Eyes and Ears.”
No, this is not another invasion of your privacy, but a worthwhile attempt to locate pest species before their invasion can cause serious harm to our homes, farms and gardens.
Two Waimea groups will meet Tuesday: one from 10 a.m. to noon at the Hunter Education Center; the other from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Waimea Community Center.
If you want more information on these meetings, call Page Else from the Big Island Invasive Species Committee at 933-3345 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If Waimea is not your home town and you want to get a group going in your neighborhood, check out the Early Detection Network at reportapest.org. Even if you do nothing else, check its website to find out what plants and insects are considered invasive on Hawaii Island.
Duff is a plant adviser, consultant and an organic farmer living in Captain Cook. Love is also a farmer and executive director of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers Association.
– Wednesday: Coffee Talk on Coffee Quality meets with Miguel Meza from 3:30 to 5 p.m. at Yano Hall in Captain Cook. It is free. Call Mary Lou Moss, of Kona Coffee Farmers Association, at 329-4035 for more information.
– Farmer direct markets: Wednesday, Hooulu Community Market, 12:30 to 5:30 p.m., Keauhou Beach Resort and Spa’s Royal Gardens; Saturday, Keauhou Farm Bureau Market, 8 a.m. to noon, Keauhou Shopping Center; Sunday, South Kona Green Market, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., above Choice Mart in Captain Cook.
– Ongoing: Plant advice lines — consult with Master Gardeners and Tropical Gardening advisers from 3 to 6 p.m. Mondays at the Kona Outdoor Circle at 331-2426 or 9 a.m. to noon Thursdays at the University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service at 322-4892, and Tuesdays and Fridays at UH CES in Hilo at 981-5199.