Move ahead on local farm-tourism push


POSTED: Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tourists dining at Hawaii restaurants desire island-grown food as part of their experience in the tropics but find it scarce on most menus. Restaurants require their food to be certified for safety and most Hawaii farmers are ill-prepared to obtain that certification. In the absence of state funding, the travel and agriculture industries should work to increase the availability of local foods at hotels and restaurants.

The Legislature overrode Gov. Linda Lingle's veto of a bill authorizing diversion of $140,000 from the Hawaii Tourism Authority to University of Hawaii pilot programs to help farmers make changes so they can pass a state audit for certification. Lingle still is unlikely to release the funds, citing a state law against transferring funds for unrelated purposes.

More than two-thirds of the agriculture products serving the hotel industry is imported, according to Kyo-Ya Management Co., parent of the Starwood hotels, including the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. Aside from pineapples and papayas, 82 percent of the food served to guests comes from out-of-state, said Victor Kimura, Kyo-Ya's director of operations.

Kimura told the Star-Bulletin's Nina Wu that the legislation, if implemented, would be “;the first initiative ever where hotels are stepping in to help another leading industry, which is agriculture. This is a partnership for two industries.”;

Of Hawaii's more than 2,000 farms, most are less than 10 acres and only 41 are certified for food safety by the state Department of Agriculture, up from only two in 2004. A state-funded Hawaii Farm Bureau program credited with the increase expired at the end of March.

Many farmers fear that the certification process is “;cumbersome and costly,”; but “;coaching will make the farmers realize this is not so,”; Mark Teruya, president and CEO of Armstrong Produce, told legislators.

Federal grants are available for farmers to acquire sinks, toilets, tables and other supplies needed to pass an audit. The state funding authorized in the legislation was intended to pay for the “;coaching,”; aimed at adding audits of 100 more farms by September 2010.

Armstrong began its own food safety certification process five years ago after “;many of our customers were asking for certification,”; Teruya said. “;They told us that this was important and something that was not going to go away.”;

In the absence of state funding — if that is the case — the travel and farming industries should have enough reason to put together the pilot program that was to be created by the legislation. If even one incident of sickness from eating food at restaurants in Hawaii were to occur, the consequences would be damaging.

“;With tourism suffering as it is now,”; Teruya said, “;we do not want to give tourists any reason to stay away from Hawaii.”;