As an adjective, ‘essential’ is defined as ‘absolutely necessary; extremely important’. As a noun, it becomes a thing that is ‘absolutely necessary’. In the world of today, a time that is defined as ‘uncertain’, the word ‘essential’ is usually paired with ‘business’, and an ‘essential business is ‘one that provides products or services that people rely on everyday or that may be necessary during this period’. It’s a grey area, because at the end of the day what we each consider ‘extremely important’ is quite subjective. That’s to say, what is important to me may not be important to you, and vice versa.
While there are many differences in opinion regarding essential businesses, various interpretations of current events, and divided beliefs regarding the Covid-19 worldwide pandemic, we can all, as a global community, agree that food is essential to life, regardless of the circumstance. Food and water always have and always will be essential to human survival. And in Hawai`i, it is not just food, but food sovereignty that is essential. Whether or not they’ve ever taken the question seriously, anyone living in Hawai`i is familiar with the phrase, ‘What if the barges stop coming?’ As stated on our Hawai`i government website (emphasis mine):
“Hawai`i is located approximately 2,506 miles from the continental United States. About 85-90% of Hawai`i’s food is imported which makes it particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and global events that might disrupt shipping and the food supply.”
That global event has arrived and it’s called Covid-19. It is undeniable that the actions we take today are essential to ensuring a healthy Hawai`i both now and in the future. One perspective is to see the situation as a problem, be fearful, etc. Another, and the perspective that Brandon Lee and team have taken, is to see it as an opportunity to get our priorities straight.
Brandon Lee, alongside his brother-in-law Keoni Regidor, is the co-owner and co-founder of Napua Restaurant on the Kohala Coast of Hawai`i. Six years ago, disgusted by the above statistics, Brandon started a farm to support the needs of the restaurant, becoming one of many Big Island restaurants to pioneer the ‘farm-to-table’ movement. When the state closure took place, Napua could have stayed open due to falling under the umbrella of ‘essential’, but to Brandon, making to-go orders for part-time residents was not nearly as necessary as getting local products to Island families and integrating his restaurant staff into the farm project.
The majority of the Front of House staff is gathered under the shade of the banana stalks, alongside a freshly planted Kalo patch this past Monday. This was their second group project, the first being transplanting rows of said banana keikis the week prior. They are two weeks into farm work, and Brandon says, with a tone that is a mixture of pride and surprise, ‘I didn’t think you guys would keep showing up to the farm, but you’re here, and what we are doing...I’m pretty sure this is a movement.’ The group is sitting next to mounds of freshly harvested Kalo, and Brandon himself is sitting on a bucket filled to the brim. Everyone takes taro home, and while digging the new rows, setting the lines, and planting the huli (baby stems), the staff discusses how they’d cooked the luau leaf they’d gathered the Friday before, and what they’d made with the eggplant and kale they’d collected. Most importantly, they were discussing who they’d shared the food with, and how delicious their lau laus had turned out.
This is the same team putting together the Farm boxes that Brandon and Keoni have been creating for the last few weeks after it became apparent that whatever is going on with Covid-19 is going to last awhile, and that they needed to adapt quickly. This team, with Brandon and Keoni at the helm, went from serving primarily tourists, to serving the community of Hawai`i all-Hawai`i products. Brandon had always had this vision, but with the daily operations of the farm, he hadn’t had the time or context to make it a priority, and neither had his staff. And while no one knows what things might look like in a couple of months, one thing is certain: in Hawai`i, food sovereignty is essential, and it has rapidly become apparent that it’s time to get our priorities straight as an isolated archipelago in the middle of the Pacific.
Mahalo for Eating with Impact, we look forward to sharing this journey with you, from our farm, to your Hale.