Policy Proposal: Native Hawaiians Should Lead Hawaiʻi’s Food Economy


Food will never lose popularity, fall out of favor, or go out of style. Food is in perpetual demand.

Where there’s perpetual demand, shouldn’t there be an ample number of suppliers? If food is in such high demand, why do one in six children face hunger in Hawaiʻi? Why do one in six kūpuna face hunger in Hawaiʻi? Why is it that about half the families with children in Hawaiʻi are food insecure? Is this not a crisis?

When it comes to supplying demands for “affordable” housing, our policymakers need no invitation to fast-track solutions to the housing crisis, even if that means incentivizing housing developers through any means necessary.

So, what about food insecurity? Where are all the incentives for farmers, ranchers, fishers, and hunters to provide food to meet this demand? Where’s the funding to purchase agricultural lands for bona fide agricultural operations?

I think we know why this isn’t really a thing. Growing houses makes more money than growing food.

Land has always been a battlefield issue in Hawaiʻi and it stands at the very core of the Native Hawaiian plight. Our biggest problems stem from being severed from our lands. This problem goes back hundreds of years. But let’s go back just a few.

In 2005, the legislature passed a law (becoming Act 8), which established the “Hawaiʻi 2050 Task Force.” The task force produced a report in 2008 expressing concern about the rapid loss of agricultural lands. The report stated, “The current land market does not favor a commitment to long-term farming operations. Lands classified as Agriculture carry the second lowest tax burden next to Conservation. Landowners can raise prices and easily hold vacant land, allowing it to lie fallow or be used only for short periods, as they await a turn in the market.”

Translation: Ag-land is cheaper, so real estate investors buy it and hold it until they can flip it for profit.

The updated 2021 Hawaiʻi 2050 Sustainability Plan isn’t as transparent about the real estate industry’s contribution to the loss of food producing lands, growing food insecurity, and Hawaiʻi’s hunger crisis.

Nevertheless, the report does contain this ominous message: “Continue the State’s purchase of fee interest for available prime agricultural lands before they are subject to non-agricultural development.”

Which sounds like agricultural lands are still being targeted for non-agricultural uses.

The rapid loss of agricultural lands is a major loss for Native Hawaiians. Our kūpuna knew: “Na ke kanaka mahiʻai ka imu ō nui (the well-filled imu belongs to the person who tills the soil).”

Native Hawaiians can use agricultural lands to develop and lead a robust food economy. Controlling agricultural lands will reconnect us with ʻāina, providing the most appropriate space for our cultural practices.

In this space, we can grow culturally relevant foods that vastly improve our health, develop agricultural housing, achieve financial stability, restore traditional communal bonds that once made us incredibly strong, and expand our reach into every facet of the food system: Native Hawaiian-owned global health food stores, Native Hawaiian-owned Michelin Star restaurants, Native Hawaiians zeroing hunger, Native Hawaiians revolutionizing healthcare. The possibilities are endless.

OHA Public Policy is focusing on laying the groundwork for a Native Hawaiian-led food economy in Hawaiʻi. To support this initiative, please reach out to Public Policy Manager Zuri Kaʻapana Aki at zurica@oha.org.