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Building a Maui Food System for the Future

Tattooed woman in kitchen, smiling at the camera

March 15, 2024 - When Jennifer Karaca and her team from Common Ground Collective (CGC) started serving up plate lunches to displaced Maui residents in the wake of the August 2023 fires, she thought they would be on emergency duty for maybe a few weeks.

“We started doing hot meals out of the kitchen at the University of Hawai‘i Maui College (UHMC) the morning after the fire,” Karaca, CGC’s executive director, says. “At that point, my train of thought was, yeah, we’re a small organization, but we can fill this gap until these larger agencies come in and handle it.”

Instead, Karaca says, the ad hoc coalition of CGC, UHMC staff, Chef Hui, World Central Kitchen, and Salvation Army ended up providing between 8,000 to 10,000 meals a day to displaced residents over the course of the next few months, a herculean task that required finding farmers and food vendors that could keep up with the demand and building out emergency distribution infrastructure on the fly.

“What we learned, unfortunately, was there was no existing overall plan for Maui that was ready to be rolled out for disaster response and feeding all these people,” Karaca says.

Karaca and relief partners started to brainstorm what could be done to make sure this kind of vulnerability after a disaster doesn’t happen again, and to tackle the critical issue of food insecurity, which was reaching crisis levels on Maui years ago.

In September 2023, CGC launched the Maui Emergency Feeding Taskforce (MEFT), a grassroots effort to open lines of communication among community organizers and government officials, advocate for greater collaboration, and ease daily burdens on displaced families.

“We work, we live, we eat and breathe Maui County. [The members of the taskforce] are the community, and we’re in the best position to come up with plans that we know will be the best for the future,” she says.

The taskforce, which has been meeting multiple times a month since its inception, brings together community hub leaders, local businesses, restaurants, chefs, and nonprofits. The collaborative has worked to build a network of support for organizers and groups that have spent the last eight months feeding Maui, in addition to drafting community plans to strengthen the local food system and more quickly respond to residents’ needs during crises in the future. The ultimate goal is to develop institutional infrastructure and community connections that will help build food independence and resilience in Maui County.

MEFT partner Maui Food Bank is working with the taskforce to identify the food needs and gaps in services in Maui’s communities. Charity Hartman, Maui Food Bank’s agency director, says, “Partnerships and collaboration are at the heart of our mission, and we serve our community best when we work together. Gathering key stakeholders at the table is absolutely vital to successfully addressing food insecurity, and building resilient communities.”

The Hawai‘i Community Foundation has supported MEFT with a $155,000 grant from its Maui Strong Fund, part of a total of $2.9 million it has distributed as of March 1 to partners providing food, supplies, and resource hubs. “In a crisis, we have emergent priorities. In this case, it was feeding people immediately,” says Lauren Nahme, HCF’s senior vice president of Maui Recovery. “While we continue to deploy resources to make sure people have their food needs met every day, we are panning out to identify some of the island’s most long-standing challenges—food sustainability to affordable housing—and use our collective community
strength to create new, systemic solutions for a better, more resilient Maui.”

To learn more about the more than 160 Maui Strong Fund grantee partners making a difference on Maui, visit hawaiicommunityfoundation.org/strengthening/maui-strong-fund.

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