Hawaii: A model state for a sustainable and independent economy

Hawaii: A model state for a sustainable and independent economy

Summer 2019 | Written by Kiley Jaques

Hawaii Representative Chris Lee speaks hopefully about his state’s aggressive approach to an autonomous, sustainable future. He explains that, in 2005, Hawaii developed a sustainability plan targeting nine benchmark goals to be reached by 2020. Much more was proven possible. “We have since blown far past what we thought we could do by adopting the Aloha+ Challenge goals,” says Rep. Lee. “By changing our laws to be the first state to require the transition to 100 percent renewable energy and a carbon-neutral economy, and to create mechanisms such as the nation’s first organic farming tax credit, as well as grant programs to help schools grow their own food, plus the first mandate to require all schools to become net-zero facilities—all these pieces of the puzzle work together to drive the change that we are starting to see.”

Rep. Lee makes the point that Hawaii depends on imported food, fuel, and energy, among other resources, and he recognizes the system as unsustainable and economically unsound. Furthermore, should a hurricane or other weather event close the ports, the population would be extremely vulnerable. “For us, changing this paradigm is about survival more than anything else,” he explains. “But it is also about creating jobs and developing a new, sustainable economy, and ultimately providing a model for the rest of the country and the world to follow.” He sees Hawaii’s size as key to this role—it’s big enough to serve as an example for cities yet small enough to effect change quickly.

Maui Pineapple produces their fruit according to sustainable land management practices. For instance, they till organic mulch back into the rows of pineapples to restore nutrients and moisture to the soil, which also counteracts the effects of monocropping.

The Aloha+ Challenge works toward that end. Rep. Lee describes the initiative as a series of well-vetted ways to collect data and provide a basic score of where things stand in key areas that include energy, water, food, and waste, among others. “It has been enormously successful in catalyzing interest in making this shift, but also in being able to identify our weaknesses—where we are not investing resources and where we are not making progress,” Rep. Lee notes. “The Aloha+ Challenge goals give us a means to an end. They provide a deep dive into each of the policy areas that we need to radically change in order to achieve those broad goals. Two of those in particular are food sustainability and waste.”

Knowing that close to 90 percent of the island’s food is imported, Hawaii set up systems for determining what is entering the state, what is being grown locally, and how to double its food production. With a 100-plus-year history of plantation farming for export—primarily pineapple and sugar cane—small-scale food production for local consumption is a significant move. Rep. Lee notes it is not only about growing the food, it’s also about creating the distribution and market mechanisms that enable the food to travel. “That’s been a huge hurdle we have been trying to tackle, but it’s not something everybody sees right up front.”

As an example of the ability to make sweeping changes by creating markets, Rep. Lee points to Hawaii’s school system. “We serve hundreds of thousands of meals every day in our public schools—we have one statewide school district, which means we can change one contract to require local food be incorporated into those meals. That creates an immense market that we don’t even have the farm capacity to meet right now.” Despite that deficiency, progress is evident. A number of prominent farms are producing greens and other produce specifically for public schools, some of which are now zero-waste facilities—a response to the 90 percent by weight waste that had been the standard previously. “Once we build out the capacity to produce what we need, we can move into private-sector supermarkets and farmers’ markets and onto people’s plates,” says Rep. Lee.

The introduction of Beyond Green Partners into the state’s school, prison, and hospital institutions is a prime example of how the Hawaiian government’s creation of marketplaces is driving investment in local, sustainable food production and waste management.

A number of farms on Hawaii are growing produce specifically for schools and hospitals.

Greg Christian is the founder of Beyond Green Partners.

Nourishing a Community

In 2017, Beyond Green Partners went to Hawaii to implement model programs in the school district—a collaboration between the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, The Kohala Center, the Hawaii Department of Education, and private donors. Beyond Green Partners—a sustainability consultancy working with schools, hospitals, and prisons that have in–house dining services—employs systems thinking–based solutions to help transform food service into a sustainable production. “From the top of government leadership down to the local people, everyone is working on this,” says Marnie Record, communications director. “They want every institution—every school, hospital, and prison—to follow this program to bring health to their communities and achieve food security.”

Among those institutions is Kona Community Hospital. In 2018, it engaged Beyond Green Partners as part of another wellness initiative it had adopted—the Blue Zones Project, which targets several different community sites including schools, workplaces, grocery stores, and places of worship to improve the well-being of a community and the longevity of its members. As one of those sites, Kona Community Hospital had many sustainable practices already in place when Beyond Green Partners came on board to help launch a better eating initiative. The hospital’s ultimate goal was to have its Ginger Café certified as a Blue Zones Restaurant. “We wanted to do an employee-engagement project inside the Blue Zones that would touch the most lives possible,” explains Judy Donovan, the hospital’s marketing and strategic planning director. “Where would it be? The cafeteria, of course, because everybody goes there.”

Donovan and her colleagues chose Beyond Green Partners because they valued the way in which founder Greg Christian and his team look at the whole food system. “We thought, if we are going to do this, let’s go big,” she recalls. Christian and a project manager assessed the hospital’s kitchen and spoke with cook staff, leadership teams, and other hospital employees to get a handle on existing conditions. “He pushes 100 percent scratch cooking and purchasing and eating local foods,” Donovan notes. “That was going to be a big change for us because we have an industrial kitchen.” They started with meals for employees and visitors, postponing patient menus until they saw results in the café. There was a lot of taste-testing and survey-taking to collect data. In the end, the hospital decided in favor of 100 percent scratch cooking, and the patient menus were ultimately revamped to include vegan options, which are remarkably popular.

Their initial efforts included taking the kitchen staff on farm visits and to local stores to establish sources for seasonal foods. They also worked to inspire culinary creativity and ownership. “Greg is awesome at encouraging them to come up with their own recipes, and we are working on that now. We want to cycle into the menu one staff recipe per month,” Donovan explains, noting that because the kitchen staff were so practiced at opening boxes and heating processed foods there were some growing pains, but they have since come around to the pleasures of working with fresh ingredients.

As for efficiencies, Donovan remarks: “They don’t come into the kitchen and tell you to replace everything. They say, ‘What do you have? What’s working for you now? What could make it work better?’” As a result, the hospital bought some new equipment to expedite scratch cooking, and they pinpointed areas of waste. Subsequently, they cut the number of entrées to a single meal; rather than four different options there are just two—the same dish prepared in two ways, standard and vegetarian or vegan. Additionally, leftovers are saved and either served again or used in a new dish. Food waste is at a minimum, and the project manager is helping to determine how much they need to cook on a day-to-day basis to further reduce waste. The team is also scaling back portion sizes.

At the end of the two-phase, six-month implementation period, the hospital has found that it is spending either the equivalent or a bit less than what it had been spending prior. And the feedback from the 460-member staff has been excellent; initial employee satisfaction measurements indicate the Kona Community Hospital workforce enjoys their jobs more under the new program. “You can tell by their smiles that they are proud of the food they are making,” Donovan notes.

Record describes the success at Kona Community Hospital in terms of its economic potential: “Now, 20 percent of all food purchases are from local food vendors—that’s $6,000 to $8,000 dollars per month. As Hawaii looks to expand this program, $6,000 to $8,000 a month is just a tiny percentage of what [could be part of the state’s whole economy], given how many people are fed every day through schools, hospitals, and prisons.”

Beyond Green Partners is now three months into establishing similar programs at two more state hospitals: Kauai Veterans Memorial Hospital and Samuel Mahelona Memorial Hospital. Though they are under one leadership, they are located in two separate and culturally distinct regions of the island. One hospital is adapting quickly, while the other requires more energy on the front end to make people comfortable with the new systems. This points to the fact that education is a big component of what Beyond Green Partners does. If institutions are to adopt their program, they must help staff understand the greater good aspect of this approach. As Record says, changing minds and habits is hard work.

Yet the approach is gaining momentum in Hawaii—the hospital network’s corporate office is also looking to adopt the program. “If you can feed people better food and you can do it either at the same efficiency or better, it just makes a lot of sense,” Donovan concludes. “And if, across the United States, we are looking at ways to improve the health of our communities, this is a really great way to start.”

Representative Lee concurs, adding: “Efforts like those being made by Beyond Green Partners are catalyzing the kind of change we want to see, on the timeline that it needs to happen.”

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