CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Cheryl Vasconcellos prepares Hana Fresh produce for sale at the Kapiolani Community College Farmers' Market. The company offers subscription boxes for pick up on the first Saturday of each month, allowing customers access to its organic produce.
Hana Fresh off the farm
A hardworking crew gets produce from the Maui nonprofit to Honolulu in pristine condition
STORY SUMMARY »
Everything looks picture perfect at the Hana Fresh organic produce booth at Kapiolani Community College's Saturday Farmers' Market: Several workers, in forest-green T's bearing the Hana Fresh logo, wear bright smiles as they chat with customers perusing pristine fruits and veggies.
Produce subscription boxes are available from:
» Hana Fresh: Monthly boxes are $25 for medium (seasonal veggies and three herbs) and $35 for large (seasonal fruit, veggies and three herbs), with a commitment of three months. Sign up and pick up boxes at the Kapiolani Community College Farmers' Market on the first Saturday of the month. Visit www.hanahealth.org.
» Just Add Water: Weekly boxes ($20) include fruits and vegetables, vegetables only, fruit only, gourmet produce, salad boxes ($15), family-sized boxes ($30) and eggs ($4 to $7). First box includes an additional $5 processing fee. Boxes dropped off at various locations islandwide. Call Kim, 259-5635.
» Ma'o Organic Farms: Plans to offer boxes in four months. Call 696-5569.
» Also: Order produce from conventional and organic farms through Fresh From the Farm, an online service, farmfreshhawaii.org.
When a customer can't decide among three varieties of cucumbers, a staffer cuts her slices of each and talks about the distinct qualities of the varieties, even suggesting recipes. Another customer arrives to pick up his monthly preordered "subscription box" of produce, which features about a dozen varieties of restaurant-quality fruits, vegetables and herbs.
In the meantime, the crowd has grown three rows deep in the small booth, but the Hana Fresh folks seem unruffled. As they package bunches of kale and hand them to customers -- with a friendly goodbye -- one can't help but notice that even the twist ties bundling the greens bear the Hana Fresh name.
All that coordination and neighborliness make the operation look easy.
Looks, however, are deceptive.
To open at KCC by 7:30 a.m. Saturday, Hana Fresh began picking and packing its produce 24 hours prior -- late enough to ensure maximum freshness, yet early enough to allow for thorough inspection, cleaning, bunching and packing.
The operation is a small one. Twelve hired hands farm 6 acres of land, plus there's the brainpower -- and sweat -- of lead staff like Cheryl Vasconcellos, executive director of the nonprofit operation, and its precursor, Hana Health, which runs a community health center.
Vasconcellos worked from sun up to way past sun down, alongside the farmers, harvesting and then picking through the crops for the best of the best pieces for the trip to Honolulu.
Saturday morning, before sunrise, there was more picking and packing before Vasconcellos and several others boarded the Superferry, boxes of produce and a refrigerated van in tow.
The long, but not atypical, day is representative of the rigorous, ambitious journey Vasconcellos and her staff took to address the health needs of an isolated community and, through the farm, to support the economy and lifestyle.
"We have a huge agenda, and we stay very focused," Vasconcellos says. "We put our whole soul into this."
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While hapa-haole tunes may have romanticized Hana as "a place that's heavenly," there's been more to the remote Maui town, and it hasn't all been idyllic.
In 1997, when the Hana Community Health Center was transformed into Hana Health, a community-based nonprofit organization, Hana's medical center was on the verge of closure. It was a dark time for a community that bore some of the worst socio-economic health issues in the state.
While more Native Hawaiians reside in Hana than in any other place in the state besides Niihau, the isolated area has been federally designated as underserved in medical, mental health and dental services.
In response, Hana Health began a holistic approach, offering standard care along with acupuncture and lomilomi, house calls and kupuna care programs with services like housekeeping, meal delivery and transportation.
Hana Health also developed nutrition programs based on the traditional Hawaiian diet -- "viewing food as a source of wellness," says Cheryl Vasconcellos, executive director. While that hardly seems a big deal, it surely was one in Hana, where access to fruits and vegetables was limited by its remote location. Hana Health staffers solved the supply problem directly: They began growing their own food.
A garden provided fresh organic produce for open markets, several healthy lunches and dinners weekly for kupuna and a salad bar once a week at Hana Intermediate and High School.
From that point, the staff and board of directors decided to take their gardening to the next level, and a new chapter for the community began.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Cheryl Vasconcellos loads boxes of Hana Fresh produce to be sold at the Kapiolani Community College Farmers' Market.
HANA HEALTH sits on 12 acres of land, most of which was lava rock and "totally wooded, overgrown forest" four years ago.
"We had the land assessed for farming, and it was one of the worst levels it could be," says Vasconcellos with a laugh. "But then we thought, Hawaiians used to farm here, and we can do it, too."
Since 2004, six acres -- all the usable land -- have been cleared, cultivated and transformed into Hana Fresh, an operation that grows organic gourmet produce, from heirloom lettuce, baby bok choi and herbs, to Tahitian lime, orange lilikoi and starfruit. Beyond supplying the immediate community, Hana Fresh sells at retail outlets statewide, the Kapiolani Community College Farmers' Market, and to individuals in preordered monthly subscription boxes. It also supplies many fine restaurants around the state.
The farm also serves as employer to 12 Hana residents, whom Vasconcellos both works alongside and manages.
"Farming is hard work," she says flatly. "There are no slackers here, that's for sure."
The farmers are another manifestation of the large-scale mission: to create employment.
"To improve health, you've got to improve the economic status of people," Vasconcellos says. "A number of our employees are recovering substance abusers. After (undergoing) a treatment program, they need to make lifestyle changes, and being on the farm makes a big difference. Some have been clean three and four years."
Hana Fresh was launched with a three-year federal grant that covered training and market research, clearing the land, buying equipment, trucks and a refrigerated van, and supplying operating expenses.
All the while, the farming team has struggled for success amid the challenges of their learning curve and the unpredictability of Mother Nature.
"We're always tweaking," says Vasconcellos. "We're shooting to triple production next year, and a real problem, for instance, is that one crop we want is tomatoes. There's a big demand for good tomatoes in this state. We've been practicing for a year, but we still don't have a good crop. Rain, fruit flies and mildew (have been a problem), so we got a greenhouse. But there's still mildew and poor growth. Because we want organic tomatoes, it's really a challenge. ...
"We can project our crops, but one big storm could wipe us out," she continues. "The best-laid plans depend on Mother Nature."
Then there's the financial challenge of distribution, a universal woe among neighbor island farmers.
Juanita Kawamoto of Fresh From the Farm, a "virtual reality farmers' market," says bringing produce to Honolulu accounts for 30 percent of most farmers' prices.
"Most of Hawaii's farms are located on neighbor islands," says Kawamoto. "We produce enough locally to feed the state, but we can't get the stuff over here, where the population is, at a reasonable rate."
An additional hurdle is competition from abroad: Imported produce from countries such as Mexico, Chile and Thailand benefit from international treaties that allow them to send produce to Hawaii at less cost than neighbor island farmers contend with interisland.
DESPITE the grim outlook, Hana Fresh has joined a growing industry. The Hawaii Organic Farmers Association says organic farms are increasing by 20 percent a year.
"The market is HUGE," Vasconcellos says. "We're not coming close to even meeting demand."
Subscription boxes are a way Hana Fresh meets demand while holding down costs, she says. "With gas prices, it costs $75 just to get from Hana to Kahului. To get to Honolulu, it can be as much as $500."
Delivering boxes that have been pre-ordered means Vasconcellos doesn't have to guess how much to bring to Honolulu each month.
Deborah Ward at the Organic Farmers Association says subscription boxes are a niche that organic farmers can fill.
"Most organic farms are small farms, so the subscription boxes are a good way to approach the market," Ward says.
AT Hana Fresh, the two-year projection is to become a self-sustaining business that will secure the employment of its dozen farmers.
The goal may seem optimistic, but Vasconcellos and staff have the track record to back their expectations. Remember: In 11 years, they've taken a health center in shambles and turned it into a place that's successfully addressing the health, economic and lifestyle needs of an underserved community.
Hana Health and Hana Fresh seem invigorating operations, if only for their audacious ambitions -- "to improve the health, welfare and economic development of our community so people in Hana can continue to live here and care for their families and earn a good living without changing our rural lifestyle," Vasconcellos says.
"We're doing what other communities are just talking about."