By Sonia Isotov
Several organizations have come together to launch the Food Innovation Center, a new food business incubator located at the University of Hawaii Maui College (UHMC).
Together the Abercrombie Administration, the Maui County Farm Bureau, UHMC, and the Hawaii Agricultural Foundation are creating a new opportunity for farm and ranchers, local entrepreneurs, and students to receive education and drive the development of value-added food products, in such areas as product design, nutrition, food safety, and retail food sales and marketing.
The new Food Innovation Center at UHMC will act as a business incubator providing the space and equipment for research, development and small-scale production of value-added food products.
The food incubator will help local Maui farmers and ranchers overcome the challenge of what to do when there is an excess harvest or it costs more for them to bring their crop to market than they will earn back in profits.
To address this issue, three years ago members of the Maui County Farm Bureau began developing the concept of a local Food Innovation Center to help farmers and ranchers turn their fresh food into value-added food products like frozen foods, and dried, preserved or canned goods.
The value-added products would not only increase the profit margin for farmers and ranchers, it would also help them stabilize their business since value-added products have a fixed price while the market for fresh food can fluctuate greatly.
The Maui County Farm Bureau met with the University of Hawai’i Maui College leadership to discuss their idea, build upon innovative Maui Culinary Academy products, and the perfect space to house the center became available when the college transitioned its kitchen facilities to the Pilina building and the former area needed a new purpose.
The college offered to cooperate with the Maui County Farm Bureau, and a synergistic partnership between the Maui County Farm Bureau, UHMC and the Hawai’i Agricultural Foundation soon agreed to help bring the Food Innovation Center to fruition.
Governor Neil Abercrombie recently released $1.255 million through the state Department of Agriculture to the University of Hawai’i Maui College for design, planning and a portion of the construction cost to transform Maui College’s former cafeteria into the new UH Food Innovation Center. The state funds will also be used to leverage federal and other project-related funding.
“The Food Innovation Center will create opportunity for research and development on Maui – an opportunity that does not currently exist on the neighbor islands,” said Governor Abercrombie, who toured the site on December 14. “The center will ultimately help local farmers and entrepreneurs turn excess crops into profitable value-added food products, creating jobs in the process and giving residents more options to buy local goods.”
“We sincerely appreciate the governor releasing the funds so we can get started,” said Warren Watanabe, executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau. “The Food Innovation Center will improve the viability of local farmers and ranchers, and help stabilize the industry.”
“Farmers need a way to deal with excess crop when supply and demand don’t line up,” said Denise Hayashi, executive director of the Hawai’i Agricultural Foundation. “And unless new farmers can see their way to profitability, they won’t be interested in replacing the generation that is now retiring.”
Maui County Farm Bureau’s Mae Nakahata also sees the center as an opportunity to help provide the local community with affordable and easy-to-prepare frozen or packaged meals. “A lot of Maui County families these days have one or both parents working, sometimes more than one job. Through the Food Innovation Center, we’ll be able to make healthy dishes they can easily prepare after work that won’t break the budget.”
Food security is another priority for the Abercrombie Administration, which is supportive of efforts that lessen Hawaii’s dependence on out-of-state resources. “The center is an important part in addressing Hawaii’s food security,” added Governor Abercrombie.
“It supports on-island operations and cultivates homegrown expertise in the preservation of food, which can be essential should outside sources become temporarily cut off after a natural disaster.”
“This is a piece of the puzzle for improving food security,” said Clyde Sakamoto, chancellor of University of Hawaii Maui College, in a written statement. “Not only will it help farmers develop new products, it will also contribute to a stronger food industry locally.”