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COVID has done a great job of highlighting the broken systems in our society, locally and across the planet. It has given us a window of time, a sliver of opportunity, to fix some of those systems, but we have to act fast. We are all talking about food security, new economic priorities, a shift in how things are being done. But talk alone will not save us. We have to act and work together to implement solutions in our families and our communities that will remain intact as things start to return to “normal,” so that the normal we return to better serves us and our planet.

First, news flash: many of us can work effectively from home. As COVID restrictions lift, Kaua’i County is trying out a 4 day, 10 hour a day workweek for County employees. Employees will get 3 days off per week and eliminate one day of commuting, leaving less traffic on the road and reducing gasoline use. Can we try that with more of our businesses, one or more days per week, when we all start going “back to work?”

Let’s talk food next. Hawai’i’s fertile soil and climatic conditions coalesce to make Hawai’i potentially a major producer of nutritious food, for its residents and for export. However, our agriculture and food distribution systems are broken. The current stark reality is that 85-90% of Hawai’i’s food is imported; making us particularly vulnerable to disasters and global events that might disrupt the economy or infrastructure. You know, global events like COVID-19.

Small farmers and local producers on Maui watched their income streams dry up nearly overnight. At the same time, crowds were lining up at big box stores, buying food shipped in from all over the world, leaving store shelves empty. Farmers and community leaders responded with new produce delivery programs while many consumers are going out of their way to buy local goods and farmers markets are adapting weekly. A team of organizers has been working around the clock to put together the Maui Food Hubs, an online platform connecting consumers with farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and “Made on Maui” products. Products are collected centrally, sold online, and distributed to pick-up points all over Maui.  

These are all great solutions during this crisis. But here’s the thing: If we are going to turn COVID-chaos into long-term opportunity, we have to put real time and effort into supporting these new systems now AND as things start to slowly open up. We have to consciously make these systems the new normal, but it will only work if we, as a community, commit to making it work. Just by committing to positive solutions and changing our food purchasing habits, we can revolutionize food and agriculture on Maui, change our economic drivers, and support farming systems that create solutions to climate change.

We can reimagine so many of our systems with this kind of community engagement—not just in times of chaos, but even in normal day-to-day lives (whatever that means anymore).  The long-term health of our people and local economy depends on the choices we make in the next few months and how we turn those choices into long-term systemic change.

Where in your life has COVID highlighted the fault lines in the systems around you? Health care? Education? Tourism? Housing? Whether you are a teacher, a landlord, a business owner, a parent, a hotel employee, a chef, I’m sure you can see how one solid positive change in how you “normally” do things can provide a solution or relief to a broken system. 

The big question is can we commit to making this change, and carrying it through beyond the COVID crisis? Let’s use these next few months creating more sustainable systems, on re-writing our future and the systems that are supposed to serve us, instead of break us. If we play our cards right, this is where crisis meets opportunity. After COVID-19, let’s not go back to normal. Normal wasn’t working. Let’s come out of this better, more sustainable, and more connected than ever! 

Image Credit: Gaia Photography

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Autumn Ness is the Director of the Organic Land Management Program of Beyond Pesticides. She is a community organizer and farmer advocate focused on empowerment of local organic farmers, policy, education and systems change. She’s also the campaign manager for Uncle Walter Ritte, running for State House for Pa’ia, Ha’iku, East Maui, Lana’i and Moloka’i. You can learn more about the Maui Food Hubs at MauiFoodHubs.org, or follow them on facebook or instagram for updates. Check out Beyond Pesticides Hawai’i at https://beyondpesticides.org/programs/hawaii.


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