Why Local Food? Part 3: Cultural Impact of Food in Hawaii

Part 3 of this 4-part series, “Why Local Food?”, is focusing on the cultural implications of local food and expanding the local food industry in Hawaii.  Part 1 gave an overview of food in Hawaii and Part 2 focused on the potential environmental impacts of expanding food production in Hawaii.


thanks cafemama

I’ve recently started on Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle — it’s been on my must-read list for years and I’ve finally got a chance to dig into it.  My favorite part so far (I’m only on chapter 2) has been her discussion of food culture:

Food culture in the United States has long been cast as property of a privileged class.  It is nothing of the kind.  Culture is the property of a species…Food cultures concentrate a population’s collective wisdom about the plants and animals that grow in a place, and the complex ways of rendering them tasty.

She goes on to talk about how it isn’t just environmentally-just to wait for foods to come into season.  Eating foods in-season means eating them at their best, and it helps “move ‘eating’ in the consumer’s mind from the Routine Maintenance Department over to the Division of Recreation.”  What Kingsolver is talking about is something that we need to keep in mind when we talk about local food and the prospects of expanding local food production and distribution, in Hawaii and anywhere else.  Because our food culture is a physical manifestation of our collective history, it isn’t the property of people that can afford it and it is vital to the physical and environmental health and social well-being of our communities to eat locally and preserve our traditional food practices.

Preservation of Food Traditions

Within its crops, traditional growing practices and recipes, Hawaii’s food culture embodies the social values and beliefs of Hawaii’s native and indigenous cultures; so much so that the affinity for certain foods is based more on cultural value than nutritional value.  People in Hawai‘i eat a mixture of three distinct genres of food – culinary evidence of our Polynesian roots; immigrant ancestors from Europe, China, Japan, Portugal, Korea, the Philippines and Southeast Asia; and the blending of those cultures through assimilation and intermarriage into what is known today in Hawaii as “local” (Laudin 1996; Murcott 1982).

Native Hawaiian Food Culture. Traditional Hawaiian crops covered the gamut to sustain the people through times of feast and famine.  Staple starches, like taro, sweet potato and breadfruit were mixed in with other nutritious goods, like banana, coconut, kukui and forest plants.  Access to animal protein sources, namely fish and pork, was not frequent but still important to the traditional Hawaiian diet.  The way in which food traditions were intertwined into everyday life is evident in Hawaiian mythology — like the story of Hāloa, which told of the value of caring for our land as a member of the family because it sustain us (Krauss 1993; Matsuoka & Ibanez 1993). 

Traditional knowledge and land practices hold the key to how a population of over 500,000 developed in Hawaii with minimal, if any, interaction with foreign countries.  For Native Hawaiians today, the loss of access to land and traditional food sources can lead to a decline in practicing food traditions and connection to the land.  And without a connection to the land in which traditional practices are based, many communities have lost the means to transfer traditional knowledge between generations.  Both traditional food sources and familial bonds are lost.  In addition, the loss of the traditional food culture impacts physical and community health, as indicated by high rates of disease and crime, and a decrease in dietary diversity, especially for those in poor economic circumstances (Kuhnlein & Receveur 1996; McCubbin 1983; McGregor et al., 1998).

Local Ethnic Food.
Food was consolation in the difficult life of Hawai‘i’s migrant communities in the 19th and early 20th centuries, both for missionaries and plantation workers.  Missionaries to Hawai‘i in the 1820s hailed from New England and were greeted with an unfamiliar climate and unfamiliar food sources.  Missionary women created a new style of cooking, really more out of necessity than creativity, using local produce and imported salted meats.  Sugar plantations in Hawai‘i surged around the late 1800s, and labor was imported from China, then Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Portugal.  As workers longed for familiar foods from home, many began producing their own fruits and vegetables in their backyards.  Some traditional food preparations and celebrations brought to Hawai‘i by these groups are still practiced today.  Over time and as groups adapted new customs in Hawai‘i, ethnic foods blended and took on a new and unique character known as “local food” (Laudin 1996).

Health & Hunger

We can’t really have a discussion about food culture without at least briefly touching on the impact of a population’s food culture on its health.  While traditional food cultures — like the one followed by ancient Hawaiian people or ones followed in many other regions around the world — embody traditions in which people consume balanced, nutritional meals based on in-season and locally-available foods, the food culture we have developed in modern times is not as healthy for us.  Right now, indicators show that as a nation, the US is suffering from the highest incidences of diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and other nutrition-related diseases.  And the burden is not borne equally across race and socio-economic status—most cases are found in minority populations (CDC 2003). 

And ironically, in a time of food excess, many are hungry.  About 11% of Hawai‘i’s population is considered food insecure or to be experiencing very low food security (DBEDT 2008; HDOA 2008).  These families are turning to local food banks and government programs — the main sources being the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program), the Women, Infants & Children (WIC) program and the Hawaii Food Bank.  Any efforts to preserve Hawaii’s food culture have the potential to truly impact this part of our community, especially Native Hawaiians, since they experience higher rates of unemployment and lower incomes than other ethnic segments of Hawaii’s population (OHA 2006).


To summarize — Preserving our food cultures means enjoying food at its best — with tastier edibles, healthier people and a nurtured environment.  It means that we don’t need to be rich to enjoy the best of what our communities have to offer in terms of food.  And to be fair, even through Kingsolver talks about how food cultures belong to us all, it’s really those that are economically disadvantaged that suffer from the decline of healthy food cultures the most.  But she also had me thinking that I even though I very rarely eat at expensive restaurants, I’m eating some pretty fancy stuff right from my own kitchen, just with all the homegrown herbs that I’ve been using from my lanai garden.