A few months ago an officer from the Hawaii Department of Education School Lunch Program was invited to meet with members of the Maui Chapters of the Hawaii Farmers Union United (HFUU) to discuss the possibility to locally source the fruit and vegetable needs of the School Lunch Program, which currently imports 80% of its food. HFUU learned that Maui schools alone would need millions of pounds of foods like bananas and sweet potatoes and were encouraged when the officer said, “If you can grow it, we will buy it – but the supply must be consistent, and within budget.”
As exciting as that sounds, the business framework needed to attract enough farmers to consistently meet the demand would be organizationally complex. HFUU’s Cooperative Committee, comprised of board members on all of the islands met to discuss the challenge and all agreed that the logistics might best be served by forming a farming cooperative; one of epic proportions and if created statewide could exceed the demand and beyond. Farming cooperatives on each island could revolve around a centralized food hub where resources are shared, reducing overhead costs. For example, the Maui food hub would have a large commercial kitchen, packaging and distribution facilities. Farmer Coop owner/members would also have access to regional nutrient recycling centers and a soil amendment dispensaries, helping to reduce the cost of buying imported fertilizers. Farming cooperatives can also include several aspects of production, formed around the principles of a labor cooperative.
Excited by the prospects of the challenge, in May, 2015, with generous donations from many in the SHAKA (Sustainable Hawaiian Agriculture for Keiki & the Aina) movement, an opportunity arose to send two Hawaii Farmers Union United, Maui Chapter members to the Praxis Peace Institute’s Seminar in Mondragon Spain, to learn about the most successful cooperative in the world. The first Mondragon cooperative was created in 1956 and as of 2015, 103 cooperatives operate successfully with assets in the billions. Mondragon has its own insurance company, its own corporate structure, its own university and for a while its own bank. Profits are enough for worker/owners to be comfortably taken care of from cradle to grave. Although there are no really rich people, there are no poor people either. Mondragon coop members are by U.S. standards, upper middle class.
The Maui delegation, consisting of Mauna Kahalwai board member, Mahie Atay and Haleakala Chapter Board President, Phyllis Robinson spent 6 days in the hilly Basque region of Spain learning about Mondragon’s corporate management structure.
On their return the HFUU has began to put the wheels in motion. The Hawaii School Garden Network has also indicated wanting to become involved. Now HFUU has to raise the funds to hire a coordinator to begin to bring all the elements of creating a coop together here on Maui. This is currently underway – Hawaii Farmers United Union would like to begin providing food for the School Lunch Program, as a pilot on Maui by 2017.
The Hawaii Farmers Union is part of the National Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union of America and as their parent organization, they are providing HFUU with examples of farming cooperatives that date back to the early 1900s. Step by careful step, this historic vision just might become a reality.
The opportunity to supply the Hawaii Department of Education School Lunch Program, with locally sourced fruits and vegetables, has planted the seed for food sustainability and creates an exciting way towards achieving food security for our islands.
Photo: Mondragon Spain
Image Credit: Phyllis Robinson