Hawaii's food crisis prompts 19th century home economics

When I first moved to the Bronx, I was amazed at the food prices. While I could often find exotic foods like plantains or cassavas for a fraction of the prices that I had grown to expect in Virginia, relatively mundane foods cost a fortune. Peanut butter was easily twice as expensive as it had been, and string cheese cost me about $6 a bag. Part of this was the fact that many of my mainstream foods were not very popular in my Dominican neighborhood. Of course, the other half is the so-called "ghetto markup," by which many stores raise prices because there isn't a lot of competition.

At any rate, I quickly learned to think like a 19th century homemaker. I stopped buying food that wasn't in season, and started to adjust my diet to the circumstances of my community. I began to eat the cuisine that was locally popular, forgot about most of the foods that I was used to, and found sources for the ones that were irreplaceable.

Nowadays, except for my weekly jaunt to Trader Joe's in Union Square and my occasional cheese-and-produce run to Bronx's Little Italy, I buy most of my family's food in my neighborhood grocery stores. While I'm still paying a lot more than last year, when Wal-Mart was my local grocery store, I've found ways to feed my family on a budget.
I was reminded of this recently when I read about the inflated cost of food in Hawaii. Given the extremely high value of real estate in Hawaii, it is not really financially viable for the islands to support farming. Consequently, most food has to be shipped in from the continental United States. In the best of times, this means that food is a lot more expensive there. Now that gasoline prices are going through the stratosphere, food has become downright ridiculous. In fact, according to a recent article by CNN, food prices in Honolulu rose 5.5% last year. By comparison, they rose 3.9% in the continental U.S. This means that, right now, a jar of peanut butter is running around $8, a cost that would make even my neighborhood price-gouging groceries cringe.

In the short term, there really isn't much that Hawaii can do. While the cost of gas will continue to fluctuate, it isn't likely to drop enough to make a difference in the 50th state. Domestic cultivation is a possibility, but it will be at least one growing season before it makes enough of a difference to help out. Right now, some shoppers have already started buying locally as much as possible, only purchasing food that is in season, and generally following the rules that governed home economics in the centuries before we became dependent on shipping and trucking to bring food to the table.

While it is unlikely that the mainland United States will find itself in the same situation as Hawaii any time soon, it's worth noting that the survival strategies used by Hawaiians (not to mention transplanted Virginians in the Bronx) can be adapted to almost any area. If people lived in your region a hundred years ago, chances are that there is some sort of local food-production and distribution network. By tapping into it, you can improve the freshness of your meals while reducing their cost. In other words, when you're looking to the future of your dinner table, it might be a good idea to consider the history of your area's cuisine!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He is very thankful that pizza is indigenous to the Bronx.
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