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Rev‘ULUtion! Reviving Hawai‘i’s local food system for community, resilience and health through an ‘ulu (breadfruit) renaissance

Through revitalization of breadfruit and a cooperative value chain, we are transforming Hawai’i’s food system into a model for resilience.

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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Hawai’i ʻUlu Producers Cooperative

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Farmer Co-op or Farmer Business Organization

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

FARMER BUSINESS ORGANIZATION: Mala Kalu’ulu, a worker-owned farm revitalizing indigenous food systems in Hawai‘i; SMALL NGO’s: Center for Good Food Purchasing, a non-profit that creates demand for sustainable food systems, The Kohala Center (TKC), a research, education, and land stewardship non-profit, Hawai‘i Public Health Institute / Hawai‘i Farm to School Hui; RESEARCHER INSTITUTION: University of Hawai’i, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, Hawai‘i’s land grant institution; YOUTH ORGANIZATION: Hui Mālama i ke Ala ʻŪlili, a community organization re-establishing place-based educational practices; INVESTMENT-BASED ORGANIZATION: Kamehameha Schools, a private charitable educational trust stewarding 365,000 acres of land across the state of Hawai‘i, Elemental Excelerator, a social impact accelerator and investment program focused on tackling climate change through community solutions; GOVERNMENT: County of Hawai‘i, Hawai‘i State Department of Education.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.eatbreadfruit.com

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Hilo

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The Hawaiian Islands, a U.S. State, cover an area of 10,931 mi².

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

As a multi-disciplinary, multi-ethnic, multi-generational team, our relationship to Hawai‘i is as broad as it is deep. For Native Hawaiians, there is a genealogical connection to land that stems from it being their ancestral homeland and the traditional belief that land is an elder sibling. Hawai‘i is therefore significant to Native identity, wellbeing and cultural survival on a physical, spiritual, and genealogical plane. While not all of the 100 farm families belonging to the Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Co-op are Native Hawaiian, all call Hawai‘i home and are deeply connected to the islands. Our shared values include a commitment to making Hawai‘i more food secure, healthy and resilient - and a firm belief that breadfruit, or ‘ulu, is the “tip of the spear” to realizing that transformation. In no small part this includes honoring and elevating the Hawaiian worldview that recognizes the deep connection between human and environmental vitality. 

As the most isolated archipelago on Earth, Hawai’i has unique needs, incentives, and potential to realize a vision for a radically different and robust food system by revitalizing ancestral knowledge in food, agriculture, and community-based solutions. As one of the most ecologically diverse places in the world, it spans virtually every cultivable habitat on the planet. And as one of the last places settled by humans or colonized by western culture, it represents a social environment that has been in rapid flux over the past millennia. Moreover, as a multi-ethnic state with a strong indigenous foundation, Hawai’i illustrates both the challenges and opportunities associated with cultural integration. Beyond the concept of using Hawai’i as a model system, our project addresses food injustice, where Hawaiians, within their own homeland, have the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in the world - attributed largely to the decline of traditional foods from the contemporary diet.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

In many ways, Hawai‘i is the most idyllic place on earth. Anyone who has visited can attest to the charm of its beaches, pastures and climate - and to the genuine aloha of its people. Hawai’i is also the planet’s most isolated landmass (2,056 miles from the Continental U.S.) and one of its most diverse. Ecosystems range from coastal to alpine, and from desert to rainforest. 

Pre-European contact, Hawai’i evolved highly complex socio-political systems that included advanced land management and a dense population. Traditional food systems were sophisticated, diverse and adaptive - with place-based specificity that leveraged each microclimate’s unique resources while discovering innovative ways to cultivate and sustain abundance. 24 primary “canoe" crops and animals brought to the islands by Polynesian voyagers were augmented by native plants, birds and fish. This approach afforded the Hawaiian Kingdom the ability to sustain itself and feed the entire population, with no external inputs.

Over the last 250 years, colonization and globalization have dramatically shifted this picture - transforming Hawai’i into a largely degraded ecosystem virtually 100% reliant on imports. An era of mono-crop plantations contributed to the islands becoming “extinction capital of the world,” and also relied heavily on importation of workers - inadvertently fostering what is now one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world. Hawai‘i’s contemporary culinary scene reflects this mix with novel food combinations that have become uniquely “Hawaiian” through their creative blend of indigenous, Chinese, Japanese, Portugese and Filipino influences. At the same time, gradual replacement of fresh foods with imported and increasingly processed products has created an epidemic of diet-related diseases, especially among native populations. 

Hawai‘i’s socioeconomic landscape continues to evolve as the state transitions from pineapple and sugarcane plantations to a mixed economy focused on tourism, military, service, construction, and diversified agriculture. While most of the state’s population now lives in urban Honolulu, nearly 94% of the total land area is classified as rural. Further, 70% of ag lands are located on Hawai‘i Island, which contains just 13% of the population. Despite the hardships faced by many kama‘aina (residents), there is a growing sense that Hawai‘i is ready for strategic change. Hawai‘i has recently become a leader in progressive land management informed by traditional practices that incorporate environmental values, “ridge to reef” strategies, and collaborative stakeholder networks.  The government’s Aloha+ Challenge includes a commitment to double local food production by 2030. In large part, Hawai‘i’s people are optimistic, and see a path forward that is informed by the wisdom of the past while embracing modern knowledge to ensure a vibrant and healthy future for our keiki (children).

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

17592

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

1420000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Challenge #1: Extreme Isolation

Hawai‘i’s extreme remoteness uniquely intensifies every other challenge facing our food system. Looming 21st century challenges such as the climate crisis or food access and equity are amplified when we are 2,000 miles away from our nearest global neighbor.

Challenge #2: Dangerous Dependence

Despite the challenge of extreme isolation, Hawai‘i is also dangerously dependent on imports.  Some 90% of food is imported - including virtually 100% of starches and staples.  Regional food supply chains struggle as the islands remain entrenched in a global distribution network. Food costs are 81% higher than the rest of the U.S., but that has not stopped the shift from a traditional diet heavily reliant on protective foods to a western diet dependent on processed foods. This has led, in turn, to health disparities among Native Hawaiians who suffer disproportionately from chronic diet related diseases such as obesity, Type II diabetes and heart disease. 

Challenge #3: Clashing Realities 

For the average Hawai‘i resident, “paradise” is one of the most difficult places to live. Many locals work two jobs and live with extended family members to make ends meet.  The extraordinary living costs and relatively depressed wages result in a “brain drain,” where the best and brightest move to other places where the public school system, job market, and housing options require less sacrifice.  Of those young professionals who remain, few pursue a career in farming, exacerbating the challenge of a shrinking and aging farm workforce.

Meanwhile, Hawai‘i residents are outnumbered 10-to-1 by tourists visiting annually. While the tourism sector creates jobs, under its current structure, it only deepens the dependence on imports. The average tourist does not question their own footprint much less food miles when traveling, or their contribution to Hawai‘i’s engorged landfills.  

Hawai‘i’s position as a strategic military outpost has also fostered a large segment of transient residents, who are often insulated - with their highly protected supply chains, subsidized housing, and preferential pricing at military grocery stores - from the average local’s experience of hardship.

Challenge #4: Plantation Legacy 

Hawai‘i’s ag sector has withered as the last of the pineapple and sugar operations closed their doors over the last decades, leaving rusting mills and stream diversions in the dust of their depleted soils. The vast majority of Hawai‘i’s remaining farms are small-scale and the most successful often export-oriented with products like tropical flowers, coffee and macadamia nuts. 

Unbeknownst to many locals and most visitors, Hawai‘i is ground zero for GMO seed corn (and therefore pesticide) test sites. The year-round growing season, isolation (from cross-pollination), job-hungry population, and impressionable local political system have proven to be a cozy nest for multi-national agrochemical companies winding their way toward market consolidation. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

ADDRESSING ISOLATION:  Our theory of change is rooted in Hawai‘i’s culture and land legacy.  ‘Ulu, or breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), is a culturally-relevant, economically-viable, and environmentally-resilient crop.  One million Native Hawaiians are estimated to have lived sustainably on ‘ulu as one of their dietary staples prior to European contact. The legacy of ‘ulu as an anchor of Hawaiian resilience and self reliance is alive and well; ‘ulu continues to speak to the hearts and minds of Hawai‘i’s people.  

Our vision is about a movement, a “Rev’ulution” - in which ‘ulu is the tip of the spear for transforming Hawai‘i’s food system.  With ‘ulu as our focal point, we will pierce through entrenched political, economic, and social systems and create needed change. The underlying long-term tactic of addressing systemic hurdles for ‘ulu is simultaneous elimination of barriers for all other local, indigenous and protective foods.

ADDRESSING DEPENDENCE: The state can not only meet the government’s goal to double local food production by 2030 but reverse its lack of self sufficiency in the staple food category - which provides calories and nutrition critical to our survival. 

‘Ulu was a primary source of carbohydrates in pre-contact Hawai‘i. Th Rev’ulution targets the epidemic of diet related diseases among our native communities by restoring their traditional crops.  ‘Ulu is highly nutritious, with significant amounts of dietary fiber and essential vitamins and minerals; it has a low glycemic index, is gluten free, and has been shown to mitigate diet related diseases such as Type II diabetes and obesity (Turi et al, 2015). 

ADDRESSING CLASHING REALITIES: Like the ubiquitous potato, a local value-added ecosystem is starting to flourish around ‘ulu, with new companies making chips, hummus, flour, and other products. Rather than a burden, the tourism and military sectors will be ripe markets for these new ‘ulu products and recipes featured by local chefs.  

The Rev’ulution can also flourish despite a limited farm labor pool. ‘Ulu requires little maintenance and is prolific: average yields are around 300 pounds/tree/year, exceeding that of common staple crops like rice, corn, and wheat. 

ADDRESSING PLANTATION LEGACY: Restoring ‘ulu agroforestry systems through a cooperative framework will provide ecological restoration of our land, water and climate - helping to reverse the economic and environmental damage caused by more than a century of monocrop plantations and other degrading management practices. Breadfruit trees sequester carbon, create habitat, support watershed functionality, and provide myriad other ecosystem services.

As an emergent industry, start-ups, small farmers, and co-ops have processed 300,000+ pounds of ‘ulu over the past few years for local markets  - including 250+ public schools, where ‘ulu is now a regular menu item. This shows that a community-owned, vertically integrated local value chain is viable and ready to be scaled.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

In 2050, Hawai’i will have exceeded its goal of 30% local food production, and produce a substantial percentage of its own staple foods through indigenous crops such as ‘ulu - which sustained the islands just 200 years ago.  These crops are standard fare in all foodservice operations - from schools to hotels.  Native Hawaiians have shifted their dietary preferences and have greater access to traditional crops; as a result, their rate of cardiometabolic disorders has improved dramatically.  12% of jobs are now in agriculture, contributing to economic diversification. The cooperative framework has expanded to all islands, with 1,000 farmers cultivating 20,000 acres of ‘ulu agroforestry that collectively produces 300 million pounds of food per year (current local food production is below 100 million pounds per year) and returning enough profit to afford them a comfortable living. Hundreds of millions of dollars are recirculated throughout the local economy, increasing wages and quality of life. 

In addition to providing sustenance for our communities, value added products made from ‘ulu and other crops grown in diversified systems have become a significant export, so that regenerative farming creates enough economic viability to keep agricultural land in production and preserved for future generations. These systems are also relatively resilient to natural disasters and extreme climatic events such as hurricanes, floods and droughts, as well as volcanic eruptions. 

Our younger generations value ‘ulu, know how to prepare it, and understand why it is important to maintain our ancestral knowledge and world-views. Globally, there is increased respect and appreciation for the wisdom of indigenous Hawaiians, and their food systems are recognized as a model for resilience in the 21st century.  ‘Ulu has indeed proven to be the tip of the spear in creating food sovereignty, nurturing public health, ensuring environmental sustainability, and creating climate resilience.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

In 2050, our grandchildren, working on a history report for school, will turn to us asking: “Why do people always say Hawai‘i is the model when we talk about food?” We will marvel at how much progress has been made since 2020. And we tell them ...

“It began, in part, with a shared vision, a movement, a revolution that we called the Rev’ulution.  We had a vision for protective, indigenous crops revitalized as dietary staples - like Hawai’i’s soils had known in generations past. At that time we had a few aging farmers and elders holding onto what remained of ‘ulu production and cultural knowledge, but things began shifting when one ‘ulu co-op started demonstrating its capacity and proving that 20th century misconceptions like “co-ops do not work in Hawai‘i - farmers just can’t work together” and “‘kids don’t eat ‘ulu” were false. 

Community members welcomed this revival and the effort: chefs and value added processors, institutions and grocery stores, impact investors, nonprofits, educators, cultural practitioners, and policy makers at every level of government. Once we began truly working in collaboration across sectors and industries, change came in small wins and then, gradually, in bigger victories. And as with all change, it happened through persistent dedication to a larger vision - in this case, a vision of restoring a significant degree of agricultural and food self-sufficiency to Hawai’i; the vibrant self-sufficiency that had been lost over 200 years of extractive, export driven monocrop farming.

The co-op’s membership doubled to reach 200 farmers by 2025. About that time Hawai’i had adopted the Good Food Purchasing Program as part of legislation supported by the Governor.  Even though all 250+ public schools already incorporated some ‘ulu in their menu-planning, this new program led to significant increases in demand from the Department of Education as well as other state, county, and even private institutions. 

To meet this demand, ‘ulu was being planted rapidly.  In fact, ‘ulu agroforestry grew from 100 acres at the beginning of 2020 to nearly 400 acres by 2025 - largely due to a strategic partnership. Hui Mālama i ke Ala ‘Ūlili (HuiMAU), a community nonprofit, secured an agreement to steward a huge parcel of land on the east side of Hawai‘i Island from the state’s largest private landowner, Kamehameha Schools. 

This was a symbolic moment.  The new system was developed through a symbiotic blend of indigenous and modern practices, including some innovative technological applications.  It seemed impossible at first but the community got creative and financed the project through an unconventional mix of capital garnered through targeted education and networking with local financial institutions as well as nonlocal investors committed to regenerative agriculture. This ‘ulu agroforestry project galvanized communities across the state and that’s when the Rev’ulution really began to take on a life of its own. 

It wasn’t long before the co-op and other ‘ulu processors were answering the call for nearly 5 million pounds of ‘ulu for school lunches, restaurants, and food processors like chip makers and flour mills.  The Rev’ulution was starting to line up all the necessary links to make the value chain work at a local level.  Especially helpful at this time was a collaboration with a well-known local chain of restaurants and a start-up business accelerator program called Elemental Excelerator.  They coordinated with the co-op and other local producers to leverage existing commercial kitchens and skilled labor for contracted minimal and value-added processing.  Everyone started to understand that the infrastructure, food safety capabilities, trained labor pool, and manufacturing capacity handling these volumes could be leveraged for other protective staples - such as kalo (taro) and ‘uala (sweet potato).  This worked perfectly because those crops are not as seasonal as ‘ulu and can be processed in the same facilities during low- or off-season months. 

In addition, the local startup sector was strategically scaled to strengthen food system resilience. Elemental Excelerator connected farmers with some of their past technology start-ups that had scaled into successful ventures to help farmers better track and manage production, like Smart Yields and NRDS. Additional start-ups over the years made significant advances using new materials and AI to streamline harvesting and processing.  The world started to really take notice and that’s when Hawai‘i began getting recognized as a hotbed for the testing and development of new food system technologies across Oceania and the world.

With the change in demand driven by large institutions, a partnership was also formed with public health agencies to help consumers recognize “food as medicine” and to reincorporate indigenous crops into daily diets and shopping habits. This led to a dramatic increase in the physical and mental health of Hawai’i’s people, so diet related diseases among Native populations decreased significantly. 

Some really significant changes started happening in policy beyond the Good Food Purchasing Program, which had also been expanded to require participation among not just state institutions but also large foodservice establishments (including hotels) purchasing over $5 million a year in food. This significantly increased aggregate demand for local food grown in an environmentally sustainable manner with fair labor practices.

Hawai‘i then passed statewide policy modeled after the Navajo junk food tax for local protective foods, an expansion of our existing  “double up food bucks” program, and funding made available to scale a “veggie prescription” program that an O’ahu health clinic had been piloting with funding from HMSA in 2019. In 2026, the state passed legislation requiring zero food waste from institutions, businesses, and private residences, so that all food waste began to be diverted via community composting programs or for animal feed, closing the circle so that the “waste” outputs are now  used as agricultural “inputs.” There was some landmark legislation that created a benefit program for farmers.  This was the first time that affordable housing support, health and retirement benefits were thoughtfully considered and provided to farmers, which helped draw the next generation into the profession for those looking for something more fulfilling than a desk job.

Another big shift was in 2032, when after about five years of community advocacy, the “Protective and Indigenous Foods Commission” was created.   What made it work was that it included departments responsible for economic and workforce development, land conservation, public health, and agriculture.  Members were appointed from key sectors of the public like farmers, co-op managers, Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners, business investors, financiers, environmental advocates, public health and food access professionals. The Commission held public hearings and provided biannual progress reports on key goals, so we finally had consolidated governmental oversight for the transformations that made this change you ask about possible.

Like you, dear grandchildren, all local youth now eat indigenous, protective foods at school while learning about the importance of maintaining local food system resiliency. That wasn’t always the case! In 2020, the Hawai‘i Department of Education was starting to serve ‘ulu at all 256 public schools statewide, but now this program has been fully integrated with school gardens and classroom education for all ages - and the cafeteria staff are fully engaged, not just with ‘ulu but a host of other locally-grown produce, as well.” 

Finally, we say to our grandchildren, “Don’t forget the importance of civic engagement. Private sector initiative, technological innovation, and community organizing are crucial, but this rapid change would not have been possible if we didn’t live in a strong democracy, where the people have voting power and the ability to effect regulatory change in our everyday lives. Remember that in 2020 Hawai‘i spent less than half of 1% of its annual state budget on agriculture; today we spend 4-5% per year on local agriculture and food system development. This change was propelled by an upwelling of public support that emerged, in part, from the mounting pressures of climate change and growing socioeconomic inequities that we faced before you were born. 

And, dear ones, that is the story of how Hawai‘i became a food system model for the world.  They said if we could do it in the most isolated place on Earth, why not in other communities.  And indeed, now other places have borrowed from our model and communities across the globe are thriving with similar change. Hawai’i has become a leader in spreading an achievable way to Malama Honua -- care for our earth.”

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Thank you so much for the Food Extension Initiative.

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