When the idea germinated to create a “online farmers market” to directly connect local food producers to customers during the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers had no idea how big it would grow.
Since Maui Food Hub’s inception in April 2020, the nonprofit has since grown into a fresh produce and merchandise distribution network using five collection points, including a recent expansion of operations last month. from a new facility with warehouse partner SunFresh Hawaii LLC in Kahului.
“From the start, our approach was two-fold: we wanted to solve a short-term problem because of the shutdown of COVID, but we wanted to build an infrastructure that would last well beyond COVID,” said Autumn Ness, vice president and volunteer on the Maui Food Hub Board of Directors. “Our goal was to always do our best to develop it, we just didn’t know if people were going to use it or not.”
Ironically, the pandemic has created an imperfect situation with perfect circumstances “who allowed us to launch this,” Ness said Sunday by phone.
According to the council, the main mission is to support local farmers and businesses in processing, selling and distributing food, while ensuring that residents looking to buy locally grown food or kupuna in need of a safe option for shopping always have the possibility.
“We hope that growers who partner with us can have the time and resources to dramatically increase the amount of food they can produce for our community,” Maui Food Hub Chairman of the Board John Dobovan said in a press release.
When the pandemic hit, local farmers lost their big buyers when hotels and restaurants closed.
And with the lack of infrastructure “to purchase, bundle and distribute local produce to local residents, especially low-income residents”, according to the Maui Food Hub website, small farmers have struggled to find new customers and connect with residents looking to buy locally grown food.
“Aggregation and distribution infrastructure has supported local farmers and producers through COVID, while creating much-needed infrastructure that will increase local food production and long-term access,” Executive Director Keith Ranney said in a press release.
Maui Food Hub was granted nonprofit status just five months after beginning operations in April 2020, at the initiative of the Hawaii Farmers Union United-Haleakala Chapter, the HFUU Executive Committee, and volunteers from the community.
The first-ever drive-thru for customers to pick up products at the University of Hawaii-Maui College on April 18, 2020, drew 53 cars, HFUU reported to The Maui News at the time.
During the initial COVID-19 lockdown, Ness said SunFresh sublet refrigeration space for produce and provided trucks and drivers and labor at cost during the shutdown. business.
“It was really kind of a miracle, honestly, because we didn’t have to go out and get our own warehouse or storage space,” she told the Maui News. “As things started to get back to normal, SunFresh needed to get back into business and we needed to expand, so it got really tight for a little while, but they were so kind – the most amazing partners. “
When capacity reached its maximum, Maui Food Hub moved supplies and products to the nearby facility which became available for rent. They were fully operational in February.
Located at 250 Alamaha St., the warehouse doubles Maui Food Hub’s storage capacity for goods and services, Ness said.
“Now that we have our own space, we can eventually go to two cycles a week and do a lot more,” she says.
The number of online suppliers was just a handful and has now grown to over 35 local producers offering 250-300 products.
Demand for the service has plateaued somewhat, Ness said, but she attributes that to silent marketing while they gain a foothold.
“Now we’re able to take on more, so we’ve expanded and done a little more marketing and see what happens,” she says. “Now we are ready.”
Since the launch, Ness said Maui Food Hub has donated $608,410 to local farms and growers.
The majority of proceeds go to participating local growers, and about 28% support Maui Food Hub staff and operations — there are three packers, two delivery drivers, and two leadership positions, with the rest of the support coming from volunteers.
“Even the money that doesn’t go to the producer stays in Maui through jobs,” said Ness.
According to the press release, Maui Food Hub is guided by Native Hawaiian values, including traditional farming systems and food security, while recognizing the need for decent wages for staff and retail prices for farmer produce.
The team hopes these values will guide the growth of the cluster as well as the growth of the agriculture industry as a whole.
“We want to show that local food can be an economic engine” she says.
Ryan Earehart of Oko’a Farms said the pandemic had “very impacted” their wholesale business, but Maui Food Hub has helped them stay afloat by shifting product sales to the retail market.
“Maui Hub is fair and super easy to use,” Earehart said in the press release. “Their online ordering system is awesome. I am grateful for all the hard work the volunteers have put into Maui Hub and we look forward to a long future working with them.
As the Maui Food Hub grows, Ness said the team is looking to expand services to other areas by first identifying eligible locations. “food deserts” where access to fruits, vegetables and goods is limited.
For example, they could partner with organizations that already serve at-risk or low-income individuals or families to ensure better access to healthy food for their clients, or create a delivery for home deliveries.
The team even discussed the idea of adding a pickup site near the recently closed Sack N Save in Wailuku to overcome barriers for people who can’t travel far to access food.
Maui Food Hub currently accepts EBT cards and applies a 50% DA BUX discount on fruits and vegetables to all EBT customers. Since August 2020, $203,018 of EBT funds have been spent through the hub.
There is also “Give a gift” fund that goes to those who need it most, enabling them to buy food online.
Elizabeth Winternitz said in testimony on the Maui Food Hub website that “There’s something inherently rewarding about buying local, and it’s satisfying to know that farmers have this way to market directly to Maui residents.”
“As a senior in the time of Covid, I also appreciate the convenience and security of purchasing products from Maui Food Hub,” said Winternitz.
The MauiHub.org online store is open Saturday noon through Tuesday 11:55 p.m. for pickup the following Friday or Saturday at five locations: Sun Fresh in Kahului from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Saturday; behind Ace Hardware in Kihei from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday; Kulamalu in the hinterland from 8am to 10am on Saturday; next to Jaws Country Store in Haiku from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday; and The Outlets of Maui in Lahaina from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Fridays.
Select locations are also available for home delivery for a $10 fee, including select West Maui homes with orders arriving between 1 p.m. and 3:45 p.m. on Fridays; and between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday for Kihei and central Maui areas, such as Kahului, Wailuku, Waihee-Waiehu, Ma’alaea, Wailea, and South and North Kihei.
Customers can use code HUB10 for one-time free home delivery through April 5.
To purchase, donate, or register to sell products through Maui Food Hub, visit www.mauihub.org.
* Dakota Grossman can be reached at [email protected]