Maui Hub brings the farm to families with a food hub model which some who love online shopping may call a farmers market 2.0! Each week, boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables, honey, eggs, Maui-raised trout, Hawaiʻi Island dairy and a growing number of locally made value-added products are packaged at the Maui Hub’s warehouse and then picked up by customers or delivered to the far reaches of the island’s most densely populated neighborhoods.
Around 160 households ordered grocery boxes from Maui Hub each week in March. Nearly a third of the orders were paid for with federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds more widely known as food stamps. Accepting SNAP was an early priority for Maui Hub, “It’s at the core of our mission,” says Lisa Willey, who started out as a volunteer and became a full-time employee as the hub expanded. That mission, executive director Keith Ranney says, “is to increase local food access on Maui,” where 80-90 percent of food is imported and more than one in ten residents are enrolled in SNAP.
In the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, a trim team of local food access advocates, farmers, and distributors got together to form Maui Hub to redirect produce farmers had been selling to hotels to Maui residents in need of a revamped distribution model able to withstand fluctuating regulations and COVID-19 transmission concerns. Co-founder Autumn Ness says that though there’d been talk of organizing a food hub on Maui for years, the dysfunction of the pandemic was the true galvanizing force. “We were like, ‘right now, as we speak, we have food dying in the fields, and meanwhile people are standing in line at Safeway.’”
A dozen farmers signed up ahead of the hub’s April 2020 launch. Two years later, Maui Hub carries more than 250 products from over 35 producers, about half of which are farmers. The hub has helped dozens of farms maintain consistent sales, and for some, like honey producer Maui Bee Farm, it has become a main point of sale. There is something new every week, from finger limes and lychee to steamed luau and poi. At first orders averaged around $30 per box; now order averages are approaching $60 per box, a shift that Keith says is partly because the hub’s inventory has grown, and partly because people have gotten comfortable with the system of ordering their fresh, local food goods online. Though the weekly orders average around 160, Maui Hub now has nearly 2,500 users in their database.
Saturday to Tuesday, customers place their orders online for pickup or delivery the following Saturday. Farmers and producers get an order list on Wednesday and drop their goods at the hub warehouse the following day to be packed and sorted in time for Saturday—when orders are picked up or delivered to customers, and when farmers update their inventory for the next week’s orders. In addition to pickup locations in central Maui, Haiku, Kamuela, Kihei, and Lahaina, the hub delivers to homes in Central and West Maui, and plans to expand delivery range as demand grows throughout the island.
The hub team is hopeful that both supply and demand will steadily increase. A state study by the US Department of Planning and Department of Agriculture estimated that for an isolated population center like Hawaiʻi to be resilient against any prolonged disruptions in food imports, the islands should be growing at least 50 percent of their staple crops. This hasn’t been true for Hawaiʻi since the ‘60s, when local diversified farming began its decline shortly after statehood. In recent years, however, local production has increased, as have the number of small farms operating throughout the islands.
Autumn says it’s time for Hawaiʻi to seriously invest in producing more of its own food. Highlighting the discrepancy between the amount of funding the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority has historically received in comparison to state-funded farming, she says, “People have been throwing cash at the tourism industry for a very long time. So, if people are wondering, ‘how do we make more food on Maui?’ You have to throw money at it, you have to invest in it.”
Within the first year of the pandemic, $2.5 million in microgrants was given to 105 small farms with the aim of supporting and increasing production—which many farms did. Maui Hub’s inventory is constantly growing overall, but they still run out of bananas and onions on a weekly basis. Last week they ran out of cucumbers. “We need to ask farmers, ‘What do you need to quadruple the amount of bananas you’re growing every year?’” she says.
Farmers set their prices and Maui Hub employees accept deliveries at their warehouse space in Kahului industrial. Once delivered, the produce and other goods like freshly baked organic sourdough bread, herbal medicines, salts, oils, and soaps are organized into personalized boxes to fill orders of food grown and made exclusively in Hawaiʻi.
“We are still in our core growth stage, but we really have our logistics down,” Lisa says, explaining that as a processor, aggregator, and distributor of locally grown food, the framework has been laid for expansion. Maui Hub uses route optimization and ecommerce platforms Routific and Local Food Marketplace, which Lisa says have been “huge assets” that help the hub to maximize a small team and keep operations sustainable. On top of developing fuel efficiency strategies for businesses across the delivery spectrum, “they’ve really been making food hubs possible across the nation,” she says. Maui Hub is part of the Hawaiʻi Food Hub Hui with about a dozen other hubs from across Hawaiʻi, which Keith says, “all collaborate and share our successes or challenges and resources and learn from each other.”
Order online between Saturday at 12pm – Tuesday 11:55pm
Islandwide pickup & delivery the following Friday & Saturday
https://mauihub.org/ *See site for pickup and delivery locations and times