Rob Parsons

Maui's Food Fight

We need to change our eating habits, for our island, our planet and ourselves

by Rob Parsons

September 10, 2009

Let's face it: fast food rules. In Hawaii, where fish and poi were once the preferred diet of warriors and kings, good nutritional options have long since taken a backseat to the likes of spam musubi, loco moco and corporate franchise Happy Meals. Is it that people don't know any better, don't care or are just following their taste buds down the dark road to diabetes, obesity and cancer?

National debates over health care reform have revealed the massive influence wielded by insurance companies, pharmaceuticals and HMOs. But those same debates have quickly digressed into political finger-pointing. There has been little discussion of the role our personal choices play in our nation's deteriorating health. Why is it that 47 countries have longer life expectancies than the U.S.?

Enter Food, Inc., a documentary that depicts how our nation's food supply "is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and our own environment." (Maui Film Festival is screening the movie at 5 and 7:30pm, Friday, September 11 at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center's Castle theater in Kahului.)
Co-produced by Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, Food Inc. acts as a sort of prequel to Sicko, Michael Moore's examination of the failings of our national health system. According to its press kit, Food Inc. "illustrates the dangers of a food system controlled by powerful corporations that don't want you to see, to think about or to criticize how our food is made."

If it's true that "you are what you eat," why do we keep consuming fried, fatty over-processed and genetically modified foods, which we wash down with sodas sweetened with high fructose corn syrup and aspartame? Is there some diabolical chemical additive that seduces our stomachs and hypnotizes our sense of reason, over-ruling our better judgment and bringing us back to the same feed trough again and again?

Even Time magazine recently published a report titled "Getting real about the high price of cheap food." It meanders through revelations of animal feed-lot pollution and outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, government-subsidized industrial farm operations supplanting small farmers, nutrition loss and fuel costs associated with long-distance shipping and the widespread impacts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The article ends with rationales for locally produced and organic foods, reminding us that "we have the chance to choose better food three times a day."

Those choices, however, may not always be as easy as the corporate food alternatives. Driving home from town on Friday night, I stopped for my fossil fuel fix at a Paia gas station. My refillable water bottle on empty along with my tank, I perused the chiller cases. The choices were shockingly unhealthy—beer, soda, energy drinks, sugar-filled iced teas and water in plastic bottles. I left without buying anything, reminiscing about days gone by when one could buy an ice-cold Haiku Juice, with the colorful paper label wrapped around the metal can, at Nagata Store for 65 cents.

On Saturday morning we did our own part for the Slow Food movement by shopping at the Eddie Tam farmer's market. Two mornings later, after a quick Labor Day trip to the beach, I commenced chopping local produce—red cherry tomatoes, Kula onions, Waipoli hydroponic watercress, backyard arugula, carrots, Irene Mina's sunflower sprouts and a perfect avocado.

Tossing all the ingredients together with a little homemade dressing, we headed down to the healthy potluck on the lawn in front of Baldwin High School. There, while George Kahumoku Jr. strummed his slack key guitar, folks gathered as one of more than 300 communities nationwide supporting Slow Food USA's Time For Lunch National Eat-in. The goal was to build awareness and send a clear message to Congress: children need real, nutritious food at school. Signatures were added to petitions calling for lawmakers to pass a new Child Nutrition Act. President Obama, meanwhile, delivered a pep talk at a Virginia high school, calling for kids to take responsibility for their education.

The rational nexus would be that proper nutrition is conducive to mental acuity and physical stamina, and that healthy kids grow up to be successful adults. But despite the Hawaiian music and free food, the Slow Food event was exactly that—slow.

Those in attendance—an Upcountry produce delivery service owner, a Maui representative of Edible Hawaiian Islands magazine, Warren Watanabe, wearing his new farm bureau Maui Locovore t-shirt—were members of the choir. Barely a ripple was made where an entire wave of consciousness is needed to shift people's shopping and eating habits.

On another battlefront, local farmers are imperiled by Gov. Lingle's drastic proposed cuts to Department of Agriculture inspectors and Plant Quarantine Branch personnel. It's a move that some have equated to "playing chicken" with labor unions who fought Lingle's furloughs.

Attendees at last week's Senate hearing at Maui Waena School stood in unified opposition to Lingle's cuts. State workers, invasive species specialists and farmers laid out the gloomy scenario of longer delays for shipments of agricultural products and increased risks of invasive diseases and pests that could wipe out local production.

Meanwhile Lingle, speaking Friday at the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce meeting in Wailea, stumped for new telescope projects on both Mauna Kea and Haleakala summits, touting up to 100 new construction jobs. One local farmer bemoaned the twisted logic of what Lingle refers to as the "new economy," and her pushing for a handful of jobs while more than a thousand jobs could be lost from the closing of certified nurseries. "Her message is very clear," he wrote to me, "to hell with local agriculture."

We are an island community that lined up outside the new Zippy's in Kahului, that totes boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts on plane trips to Oahu, that by and large is more attached to a nostalgic "birthright" to local junk food than in switching to healthful alternatives.
But Robert Kenner, director/producer of Food Inc., reminds us that things can change. "We did it before," says Kenner, referring to the battle against tobacco companies. "We have to influence the government and readjust these scales back into the interests of the consumer."

In the end, our health and welfare—both as individuals and communities—depends upon embracing new ways to feed ourselves.