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Why Local Food is a Better Path to Job Growth than Tract Housing for Hawai'i

Scott C headshotWords by Scott Cooney
Energy & Environment

Many of us in the sustainability community can be forgiven if we think the whole concept of jobs vs. the environment is a concept better taught in history classes than current events. After all, solar employs more people in Germany and the U.S. than steel, and every day we read news of energy efficiency work, green building, renewables, and the like, all creating good jobs.

The myth of jobs versus the environment has been perpetuated by the folks who stand to win contracts, but typically, reality rests not on the jobs/environment economic analysis, but rather the short term/long term mindset.

Take the conversion of farmland to housing, for instance. On Tuesday this week, I testified before the Land Use Commission in Honolulu County, which is considering the motion to develop farmland in the Ewa Plain, known as Ho'opili, into a subdivision of single family homes, courtesy of DR Horton. The farmland is Honolulu County's most fertile remaining farmland, and given that Hawai'i imports 90% of its food from over 2500 miles away, one might expect that we'd want to preserve it.

When I arrived in the morning, I expected the usual leftist rabblerousers outside picketing (Occupy Honolulu is right down the street from the Land Use Commission building, after all). I hadn't expected DR Horton's entire staff to be on hand, but given the importance of the LUC's decision for the company (it's an 11,000 home development, valued well into the billions), I should have anticipated it.

They were on the clock with their employer, and when I arrived, I was just in time to see them enjoying their breakfast, courtesy of the company: fast food from a chain restaurant served in styrofoam clamshells and eaten with plastic cutlery coupled with bottles of Aquafina. Hawai'i battles one of the worst childhood obesity rates in the country, especially among native Hawaiians, much a result of the processed food that has been brought to the island state since right around World War II and the increased military presence here. Developing this farmland into tract housing would seem to bring more of the same: imported, processed food, and lots of waste.

The development of Ho'opili has many effects, but most importantly for Hawaiian people, the good-paying jobs created for the development in the construction industry are temporary at best. The permanent jobs cited by the developer veer toward low-paying service industry jobs in the surrounding strip malls. Hawai'i has based its economy on these kinds of jobs for the last half century, resulting in many people working two jobs and locals being crowded out of the housing market because $9 an hour will never buy a house when the median home price tops the half million dollar mark. Hawaii's Governor Neil Abercrombie is fond of saying that Hawaii's number one export is cash, and the development of Ho'opili would only exacerbate that problem.

But what's the alternative?
I recently spent some time in Asheville, North Carolina, and saw incredible job development in local food, and think this can be a prime source of economic development for Hawai'i and many other municipalities.

Besides farm jobs, local food can be processed locally (into things like dried fruits, hummus, salsa, poke (local Hawaiian dish), tempeh, tofu, pre-packaged burgers, microbrews, etc.). It creates additional entrepreneurial opportunity for local packaging producers, restaurants, marketing and distribution, and in the tourism industry. All of that creates jobs locally and keeps money in Hawai'i, which has a multiplier effect, as those people then turn around and spend their income on things they need. When DR Horton splurged to send its employees a nice hot breakfast from McDonald's, not only did it turn into four trash bags of "economic activity," it also sent Hawaiian money out of state. According to the 350 project, 68% of the money we spend at a locally owned store stays local (and has that nice multiplier effect), whereas only 43% of money spent at a chain store stays local.

In Hawai'i, creating local food jobs also reduces our dependence on imports of both food and fuel. But the profitability of enterprises like those processors and packagers down the value chain depends on having a steady and reliable source of locally grown food to process. It's very difficult for a local processor or local restaurant to compete in any realistic way with McDonald's when those processors have to import their ingredients from California or China, 2500 miles across an ocean to Hawai'i, before they can process it. This is an area that is primed for growth with all the consumer interest in local and healthier foods. And it's an industry that will be directly hurt by the development of Ho'opili and others like it.

This is just the pure economic/jobs argument, and doesn't include considerations for public health, childhood obesity, diabetes, antibiotic resistant bacteria, traffic, runoff, water quality, etc., all of which will cost Hawai'i taxpayers money to subsidize the development of our farmland into a development of pavement and single family homes, even if they are energy efficient homes and at least somewhat focused on being transit-oriented.

The argument can no longer be realistically considered a jobs versus the environment argument. It must now, as we approach peak oil, be considered a short term jobs versus long term jobs discussion.

Scott Cooney is an Adjunct Professor in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, author of Build a Green Small Business and developer of the sustainability game GBO Hawaii. For more, please visit www.GreenBusinessOwner.com

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Scott Cooney headshotScott Cooney

Scott Cooney, Principal of GreenBusinessOwner.com and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill, November 2008), is also a serial ecopreneur who has started and grown several green businesses and consulted several other green startups. He co-founded the ReDirect Guide, a green business directory, in Salt Lake City, UT. He greened his home in Salt Lake City, including xeriscaping, an organic orchard, extra natural fiber insulation, a 1.8kW solar PV array, on-demand hot water, energy star appliances, and natural paints. He is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, ultimate frisbee player, and surfer, and currently lives in the sunny Mission district of San Francisco. Scott is working on his second book, a look at microeconomics in the green sector. In June 2010, Scott launched GreenBusinessOwner.com, a sustainability consulting firm dedicated to providing solutions to common business problems by leveraging the power of the triple bottom line. Focused exclusively on small business, GBO's mission is to facilitate the creation and success of small, green businesses.

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