Featured Fellow Series: An Interview with Andrea Dean

Andrea Dean is a 2013-2014 BALLE Local Economy Fellow. Based on Hawai’i Island, Andrea works on projects that support the growth of a local, sustainable economy, with a sweet spot for growing the local food system. BALLE recently sat down with her to talk about indigenous food culture, myths about the Hawaiian economy, and a rant on the future of funding in the Localist movement.

BALLE: What is the story about how the food economy became so central to your life, both personally and professionally?

Andrea Dean: Good question. I’ve been asking myself the same thing recently! I do not come from a farm. I was not raised on a farm. I was not around or exposed to farmers. I grew up in New York in a very suburban area for the first half of my life, and a rural area for the second half, but we were not food producers. We did not interact with food producers. I came into it here in Hawai’i by an interest in what are central issues here – and which are becoming central issues all over the world – which are issues of food and energy security.

Here, we are in a very vulnerable position with respect to food and fuel. We import about 85% of everything that we eat here, meaning it comes in on barges and airplanes. I became very interested in that as an issue because it touches on so many different areas of our lives. Eating is such an essential act. Eating touches so many different areas of our lives–health, community, local economy, waste in the landfill, use of fuels and energy, and of course food insecurity.

There are also issues around land use and agricultural lands being turned into developments or urban areas. In Hawaii, political, social, demographic, and economic changes have caused food production to move away from traditional cultural systems.

All of those things are connected to eating, so back in 2006, I decided to do a very personal experiment by eating 100% locally grown food for three months. Through that experience, I learned from the ground up about all the issues and met many amazing people who were working to re-localize food production. That is how I originally became directly engaged in the issue.

BALLE: So doing the experiment was what propelled you into this work?

AD: Yes. I had been researching the issues prior to that, but doing the experiment was what really activated me. It was the act that started me on the path to this work.

BALLE: Some of your work is focused on revitalizing traditional food crops. What opportunities and challenges have come up in the intersection between indigenous food culture and the local economy movement?

AD: I am not native to Hawaii, so I can’t speak as an indigenous person to this question. I have the good fortune to work on two project teams that focus on traditional crops–The Ho’oulu ka ‘Ulu project which is working to revitalize breadfruit, and the Palili ‘O Kohala project which is a community economic development project based on taro production.

At the Ho’oulu ka ‘Ulu project, we have had success in raining awareness about breadfruit as an underutilized food source. As a result, more trees are being planted and the market demand is growing. Breadfruit is an abundant community food that people enjoy sharing with each other, and it’s also a great substitute for other starches that we import (such as the potato). We have been very mindful that while we want to help build the market and create economic opportunities for people who grow and use breadfruit, we don’t want to turn breadfruit into a plantation “commodity” crop. The tree needs to be treated respectfully, like the sacred food source that it is, not as a food commodity to be grown for profit. The Hawaiians did grow breadfruit in large groves, but they were inter-planted with other traditional crops, part of a holistic system of food production.

BALLE: What projects are you spending time on right now?

AD: The North Kohala Eat Locally Grown campaign is a project to localize our food system here in North Kohala. We have a community goal to produce 50% of the food our community eats by the year 2018, and I have worked to develop a community-based strategic plan and spearhead several initiatives to help accomplish that goal. One of our projects this year is to develop agricultural tourism in North Kohala as a way to create another income stream for local farmers. So come visit if you are on Hawaii Island! We also run the EBT (SNAP) booth at the Hawi Farmers Market, by facilitating the taking of SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) at the Farmers market we are increasing access to locally grown foods for low-income families and creating an additional revenue stream for farmers.

As mentioned above, the Ho’oulu ka ‘Ulu project to revitalize breadfruit for food security is also one of my main projects right now. The project is a partnership of Hawaii Homegrown Food Network and the Breadfruit Institute of the National Tropical Botanical Garden; I am one of three co-directors of that project. We harvest breadfruit that is not being utilized and distribute it to the food insecure. We are also working with a Hawai’i State Department of Agriculture grant to help develop the market for breadfruit. This year we will roll out a public education campaign that highlights the benefits of breadfruit and encourages import substitution of breadfruit for inferior starches, such as the potato, that we bring in from elsewhere. The project also includes distributing breadfruit trees and encouraging tree planting, as well as doing other outreach and education about breadfruit.

I am also supporting the Palili ‘O Kohala project right now–a 10-family taro growing operation and Natural Farming demonstration farm which grows healthy chemical-free food for the community. In Hawai’i we also import a lot of our agricultural inputs, so even if food is locally grown, you can be sure that a huge amount of the fertilizers – either organic or inorganic – came in on barges. So, a big part of our local food movement here now is to create our own agricultural inputs through Natural Farming.

I am developing my new farm (Ho’ea Farms) as a place for gathering, learning, and growing food. I just finished building a really cool eco-cabin and shared community space. Like-minded BALLE type folks are welcome!

I am having a lot of creative angst right now. Writing and performing (live and on video) are major passions for me. I have been working on a collection of personal essays and corresponding live performance pieces. I also can’t seem to get a video web series about the community food movement out of my mind.

BALLE: So, not much going on.

AD: I thought I’ve been simplifying. Hmmm.

BALLE: What people, businesses, or organizations have been strong partners or supporters of your work in your community?

AD: The County of Hawai’i believes strongly in food security for our island. They recognize that we are very vulnerable, and they recognize the strong potential for community economic development, so they have been strong supporters of North Kohala Eat Locally Grown and the Palili ‘O Kohala project, financially and otherwise. Kaiser Permanente has also been a strong supporter of North Kohala Eat Locally Grown, they have been with us almost from the beginning. RSF Social Finance local initiatives fund has also supported our local food system development in North Kohala, as well as the Palili ‘O Kohala project.

The Ho’oulu ka ‘Ulu project has been supported by the Hawai’i State Department of Agriculture, Kamehameha Schools, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Hawai’i Tourism Authority, Doc Buyers Fund, Atherton Family Foundation, The Omidyar ‘Ohana Fund, and many others.

BALLE: What are the biggest myths that people on the mainland have about local economic realities in Hawai’i?

AD: [laughs]…the main thing is that most people on the mainland think that if you live in Hawai’i you are just kicking back on vacation all the time, but the reality is that most people work two or three different jobs just to survive. People here work really hard, things are expensive – land is expensive, food is expensive – and wages are relatively low.

The other major misconception is about local food. People’s perception of Hawai’i is that it is a very food abundant place; that food is literally falling from the trees. Most people would be shocked to learn that 85% of our food is shipped in. We do grow food here – and some fruit does in fact fall off trees – but the majority of what people eat on a daily basis is no different in Hawai’i than it is anywhere else, so we are trying to decrease food imports and increase what is grown here.

BALLE: What do you think is next for the Localist movement? What is the next big stage of growth, evolution, and change?

AD: I can tell you what I’m sick and tired of. How’s that?

BALLE: Great!

AD: This will be a bit of a rant answer.

BALLE: That works.

AD: I’m tired of working on a shoestring budget in this movement. I am exhausted trying to piece together the financial resources required to move this work forward.

I think what is next is major investment from grant funders as well as socially minded investors. The buzzword in giving has been making projects “sustainable”, like, ‘How will this project be self-funding moving forward?’ Well, let’s see, we’re harvesting excess locally grown food and giving it to folks who don’t have enough to eat…I know! Let’s make them pay for it! Some projects are just not going to be self-supporting. Or, for example, the Palili ‘O Kohala project is going to be financially self-supporting in five years – there’s a business plan, of course – but between now and five years we need a major grant to make this happen. So, constantly chasing after relatively small amounts of money to do what is a Herculean task – trying to reverse 200 years of social, political, and economic changes in order to create systemic change and re-localize the food system – is tiring. I hate to sound like a whiner, but we do have an emphasis on expressing authentically in BALLE! The truth is that I am really burnt out on spending so much time and energy fundraising that I don’t have as much time as I want to for being creative and energetic about the work itself.

So, I think what’s next is seriously good funding for funding local food system development so we can work on a couple of key components at once and make some serious structural change.

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