When the idea was planted to create an “online farmers market” to connect local food producers directly with customers during the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers had no idea how much it would grow.
Since Maui Food Hub’s inception in April 2020, the nonprofit has since blossomed into a distribution network of fresh produce and goods utilizing five pickup locations, including a recent expansion of operations last month from a new facility with warehouse partner SunFresh Hawaii LLC in Kahului.
“From the beginning our approach was two-fold : we wanted to solve a short-term problem because of the COVID shutdown, but we wanted to build out an infrastructure that was going to last way beyond COVID,” said Autumn Ness, Maui Food Hub’s board vice president and volunteer. “Our goal was to always do our best to grow it, we just didn’t know if people were going to use it or not.”
Ironically, the pandemic created an imperfect situation with perfect circumstances “that allowed us to launch this,” Ness said on Sunday via phone.
According to the board, the main mission is to support local farmers and businesses with processing, selling and distributing food, while also ensuring that residents looking to purchase locally grown food or kupuna needing a safe option to pick up groceries still had the option.
“We hope that producers that partner with us can have the time and resources to drastically increase the amount of food they can produce for our community,” said Maui Food Hub Board President John Dobovan in a news release.
When the pandemic hit, local farmers lost their high-volume buyers when hotels and restaurants closed.
And with the lack of infrastructure “to procure, aggregate and distribute local produce to local residents, particularly low-income residents,” according to Maui Food Hub’s website, small farmers faced challenges finding new customers and connecting with residents looking to purchase locally grown food.
“The aggregation and distribution infrastructure supported local farmers and producers through COVID, while also creating much needed infrastructure that will increase local food production and access in the long term,” Executive Director Keith Ranney said in a news release.
Maui Food Hub was awarded nonprofit status just five months after beginning operations in April 2020, as an initiative of the Hawaii Farmers Union United-Haleakala Chapter, the HFUU executive committee and community volunteers.
The very first drive-thru for customers to pick up produce 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 that SunFresh sub-leased a chill space for produce and provided trucks and drivers as well as labor at cost while the company was closed.
“It was really kind of a miracle, honestly, because we didn’t have to go find our own warehouse or shelf space,” she told The Maui News. “As things started to get back to normal, SunFresh needed their business back and we needed to grow, so it got real tight in there for a little while, but they were so gracious — the most amazing partners.”
When capacity reached its max, Maui Food Hub moved supplies and products into the neighboring facility that became available for lease. They were fully operational in February.
Located on 250 Alamaha St., the warehouse doubles the amount of storage capacity for Maui Food Hub’s goods and services, Ness said.
“Now that we have our own space, we can eventually expand to two cycles per week and just do a lot more,” she said.
The number of online suppliers was just a handful and has now grown to over 35 local producers offering 250 to 300 goods.
Demand for the service has somewhat plateaued, Ness said, but she attributes that to quiet marketing while they get their footing.
“Now we’re in a place to take on more, so that’s why we’ve expanded and done some more marketing and see what happens,” she said. “Now we’re ready.”
Since the launch, Ness said that Maui Food Hub has paid $608,410 to local farms and producers.
The majority of proceeds go back to the participating local producers and about 28 percent supports Maui Food Hub staff and operations — there are three packers, two delivery drivers and two management positions, with the remaining support coming from volunteers.
“Even the money that doesn’t go to the producer, stays all on Maui through jobs,” Ness said.
According to the news release, Maui Food Hub is guided by Native Hawaiian values, including traditional agricultural systems and food security, while also recognizing the need for fair living wages for the staff and retail prices for farmers’ products.
The team hopes that these values guide the hub’s growth as well as the growth of the agricultural industry as a whole.
“We want to show that local food can be an economic driver,” she said.
Ryan Earehart of Oko’a Farms said that the pandemic had “drastically impacted” their wholesale business, but Maui Food Hub helped them to stay afloat by shifting produce sales to the retail market.
“Maui Hub is fair and super easy to work with,” Earehart said in the news release. “Their online ordering system is great. I’m grateful for all the work the volunteers have put into Maui Hub and we hope to have a long future working with them.”
As the Maui Food Hub grows, Ness said that the team is looking to expand services into more areas by first identifying locations considered “food deserts” where access to fruits, vegetables and goods is limited.
For example, they could build partnerships with agencies that already serve at-risk or low-income individuals or families to ensure better access to healthy food for their clients, or create a program to waive delivery fees for home deliveries.
The team even discussed the idea of adding a pickup site near the recently closed Sack N Save in Wailuku to address any obstacles for folks who cannot travel far to access food.
Currently, Maui Food Hub accepts EBT cards and applies a 50 percent DA BUX discount on fruit and vegetables for all EBT customers. Since August of 2020, $203,018 of EBT funds have been spent through the hub.
There is also a “Give a Gift” fund that goes to those who need it most, allowing them to purchase food online.
Elizabeth Winternitz said in a testimonial on the Maui Food Hub’s website that “there’s something inherently rewarding in buying local, and it’s satisfying to know farmers have this means of directly marketing to Maui residents.”
“As a senior in the time of Covid, I also appreciate the convenience and safety of buying produce from Maui Food Hub,” Winternitz said.
The online MauiHub.org store is open from noon Saturday through 11:55 p.m. Tuesday for pickup the following Friday or Saturday at five sites: Sun Fresh in Kahului from 2 to 4 p.m. on Fridays and 8 to 10 a.m. on Saturdays; behind Ace Hardware in Kihei from noon to 2 p.m. on Saturdays; Kulamalu in Upcountry from 8 to 10 a.m. on Saturdays; next to Jaws Country Store in Haiku from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays; and The Outlets of Maui in Lahaina from 4 to 6 p.m. on Fridays.
Some locations are also available for home delivery with a $10 fee, including select West Maui homes with orders arriving on between 1 and 3:45 p.m. on Fridays; and between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturdays for areas in Kihei and Central Maui, such as Kahului, Wailuku, Waihee-Waiehu, Ma’alaea, Wailea, and South and North Kihei.
Customers can use code HUB10 for a one-time free home delivery now through April 5.
To shop, donate, or sign up to sell products through Maui Food Hub, visit www.mauihub.org.
* Dakota Grossman can be reached at [email protected]