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Jaimie Kim

The Ultimate Opportunity To Buy Local

The Made in Hawaii Festival this weekend showcases an array of Isle products, many of them quite tasty

Buy local – it’s something we hear regularly.

It’s also sometimes easier said than done, especially for those who work to ensure we have a variety of products to choose from.

This is what Hawaii Food Industry Association and its executive director Lauren Zirbel have made their mission. The organization’s desire to promote locally made products is something they will share with us at the 19th annual Made in Hawaii Festival Aug. 16-18 at Neal S. Blaisdell Exhibition Hall and Arena.

“The goal of the Hawaii Food Industry Association is … to ensure that Hawaii continues to have a strong food chain supply system, and that our government laws reflect the fact that it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep our food supply strong and healthy,” says Zirbel.

Established in 1972, the nonprofit trade association currently boasts approximately 200 members who represent a variety of different retailers, suppliers and distributors of food and food-related products throughout the state.

Zirbel has been working with HFIA for six years and has served as its executive director for approximately a year and a half.

Originally from Ventura, Calif., and a graduate of the University of California-Berkeley, Zirbel was working with a law firm in Santa Monica, Calif., before moving to Honolulu. It’s a decision she hasn’t regretted.

“The people are amazing. They’re so kind and helpful and friendly, and I really think it would be hard to find that anywhere else,” she says.

As HFIA’s executive director, Zirbel leads the organization’s government relations committee along with its vice chair.

“I read through all the bills and inform our government relations committee of what the bills are,” she says, “and then they vote on the position we’re going to take on them.”

Essentially, the organization functions as a liaison between the government and Hawaii’s food industry.

“The legislation we’re dealing with – maybe people think it’s a small difference, but for an industry as sensitive to price points as the food industry is, it’s a big deal, and it can make a big difference about who stays in business and who doesn’t,” she says.

Legislative topics HFIA involves itself in range from liquor rules and regulations to food safety and environmental issues.

As members of HFIA, food retailers and distributors are able to voice their opinions and concerns regarding various bills that affect the food industry.

“If they weren’t a member of the association, they probably wouldn’t know in advance and they wouldn’t be able to provide their insight on how legislation is going to affect their business,” Zirbel says. “And, in some cases, it’s a pretty severe effect, depending on what the business does and what the legislation that is introduced that year does.”

Regardless of whether you are a member of the food industry or not, the legislative bills and processes that have the ability to alter the food industry in Hawaii affect everyone.

“The (HFIA, as well as the food industry) really is there to protect the consumers, because the consumers benefit from having a healthy food industry, from having healthy competition, from having all options available to retailers and suppliers, so that they can have the widest variety of product at the lowest possible cost,” she says.

Zirbel also believes that it ensures Hawaii’s food supply is sustainable for the economy and its residents, especially with the threat of natural disasters.

“That’s really important to support our local food supply so that we have enough food on the island in the event of an emergency, and also to create jobs for the long run in Hawaii and to encourage that,” she says.

For those who may think buying local is sometimes pricier than outsourced alternatives, Zirbel says that notion is drastically changing.

“It’s funny, because buying local is something that’s really progressed over the recent years, and you see it … when you pull out the ads in MidWeek, you can see everybody is highlighting their local products and really advertising them,” she says. “It’s because that’s what consumers are demanding, and the retailers are responding to that, they’re encouraging that as well.”

Local products, some familiar and others a new discovery, will be on display at HFIA’s Made in Hawaii Festival. And with 400 vendors currently signed up (and more on a wait list), you’re bound to discover the wealth of locally made goods.

“What really attracted us to it is that it’s a business incubator, so you have these small … companies trying to create products with local supplies, and a lot of them have really blossomed over the course of the festival, over the 19 years, and have turned into major companies,” says Zirbel. “We really like that aspect of it – of discovering smaller local companies and helping them grow.”

HFIA isn’t the only one committed to assisting small businesses.

“We’re very grateful for First Hawaiian Bank, which is our presenting sponsor,” says Zirbel. “They are very helpful and involved in our planning process.

“They (along with HFIA) also are really excited about the prospect of promoting small local businesses in Hawaii, and they see the festival as a business incubator.”

The festival now is in its 19th year and opens its doors to nearly 40,000 people annually. It takes a year to plan, helmed by festival director Amy Hammond, with whom Zirbel works closely throughout the entire planning process.

In addition to a variety of food products, the festival also features arts and crafts, apparel and more.

“We definitely see ourselves as a way to promote smaller businesses in Hawaii and to help them grow,” says Zirbel, “and to also help establish them in the community.”

The Made in Hawaii Festival takes place Aug. 16 and 17 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Aug. 18 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $4, and is free for children ages 6 and younger. Coupons for $1 off the admission fee are available at First Hawaiian Bank’s Oahu branches while supplies last. For more information, visit madeinhawaiifestival.com.

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