How Hawaii Food Entrepreneurs Plan To Increase Economic Independency Through Grass Roots Organizing
Hawaii’s local food entrepreneurs could play a key role in making the state more food independent and fostering a sense of community, but there are a few state rules holding them back, according to Brynn Foster, founder of the Oahu-based Voyaging Foods, which is dedicated to perpetuating the culture and healthfulness associated with Hawaii’s “canoe plants” such as taro and breadfruit.
Foster was the guest on the Dec. 5 episode of “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii, hosted by Grassroot Institue President Keli‘i Akina. She said that if some of those state rules could be changed, it would reap huge dividends for Hawaii’s economy and culture.
Foster shared with Akina the history of her company, some of the challenges that at-home chefs and bakers face when trying to make and sell their products, and some of the policies the state could change to help local food entrepreneurs thrive.
Foster said she was a big supporter of the proposed Access to Local Food Act, which was considered by the 2023 Legislature but failed to win approval.
Among other things, the proposed law would have allowed cottage food entrepreneuers to sell their homemade foods through the mail, online or through third parties.
Foster said she favored the bill because, “We need to have this collective of small cottage food makers that are doing big things.”
If you would like to view the entire conversation between Foster and Akina, click on the video below. A complete transcript follows.
12-5-23 Brynn Foster with host Keli‘i Akina on “Hawaii Together”
Keli’i Akina: Hello everybody, and welcome to “Hawaii Together” on ThinkTech Hawaii broadcast network. I’m your host, Keli’i Akina, president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.
Hawaii is often ranked as one of the worst states in which to start and grow a business. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t done. I mean, there are entrepreneurs who succeed all the time.
In fact, I’m so delighted today that we get to talk with one who has looked at the challenges and decided to face them head on, and is helping to build a whole community of entrepreneurs here in Hawaii.
My guest today is Brynn Foster. She’s the founder and director of Voyaging Foods. Now that’s a company dedicated to perpetuating Hawaii’s canoe plants such as taro, sweet taro and breadfruit, which ostensibly came to us via canoe.
Brynn’s products have been carried by Whole Foods and have been featured in the magazine “Food Industry Executive.” I would say she’s definitely up and coming, someone worth talking with, and who may, in her own practice, have some of the answers that our state needs for rebuilding its entrepreneurial community.
Brynn, good afternoon and welcome to the program. How are you doing?
Brynn Foster: I’m so doing so good. Thank you so much for having me today to be able to talk about this important subject and to, you know, spread it to your viewers. So thank you.
Akina: Well, you sound like somewhat of an evangelist about your subject matter, and I can tell from what you’ve done so far that you’re passionate about it. How did you get so involved in the local food community?
Foster: Well, it’s, you know, a journey for sure. I started by making my son gluten-free teething biscuits in my home kitchen. And that was basically from our dehydrated poi. We had a lot of poi that we were stocking up because he was, you know, teething and that was his first foods that we were feeding him. So we had a lot of poi.
And when I wanted to start making teething biscuits, I decided to take that poi, dehydrate it into a flour, and put it into as an ingredient for gluten-free baked goods. Because at that time over 18 years ago, gluten-free was becoming more of a thing, and I wanted to feed my, you know, babies gluten-free, as taro is naturally gluten-free.
So it really started with that base of a need to want to have something that wasn’t in the market. And then it really progressed into this journey of taro. And, you know, eventually it kind of circled around back to myself, which was my great-grandmother gave me a cookie made with poi when I was a little girl.
And I believe it was a seed planted in me to reintroduce me to my culture through food. So that’s really how this became from just like a cookie or a teething biscuit into something that is meant to be shared for Hawaii and the world.
Akina: Part of that story I hear is your own heritage, your own culture, speaking to you through the teething biscuit, so to speak. But what drove you to actually start producing this kind of food in your home?
You said you didn’t see it on the market. Did you look far and wide and just couldn’t find what you needed? But what I’m really asking is what turns you from a consumer into a producer?
Foster: That was a really good, like, “aha moment” because there are several, you know, Whole Foods has just kind of started to open at that time. And, you know, they were supposed to have everything in the world, and they didn’t have taro flour.
And I was like, “Why don’t they have taro flour?” You know, taro flour has to be a thing. You know, it’s a starch, it can be a great flour.
And it was then when I started to realize, you know, the things that are at the store really weren’t always the healthiest for us, and they were just more of these commodities. And what were commodities?
And I never, you know, really understood what that was, so I really did like a 10-year, I would say, journey into kind of, you know, de-educating myself on — well, de-educating is called, I don’t know if you call it rewilding, or unlearning — you know, about food. And how the system is really, like, meant to really not keep us healthy at all.
And so I was at that moment, like, I can’t be this consumer anymore just going to the store to find my foods. I wanted to know my farmers. I wanted to understand how the food was grown, you know, everything about the food, especially if it was going to be going to my child, to my toddler.
So that really brought me into this, like, consumer is the old way, and really wanting to have a positive effect in my community. So I started making my own flour.
Akina: So, Brynn, that’s an interesting thing you mentioned earlier, that you went through a period of being deprogrammed, so to speak.
Are you suggesting that we today have been, for lack of a better word, brainwashed as to what our diet should be, as to where our food should come from and so forth? And we’ve really not reflected enough about that. And you went through a process of doing so and have come up with a different way of preparing food and living.
Foster: Well, the business of food is serious. You know, it’s been, I think, since the grain revolution, you know, there’s been a lot of talk on how we can mechanize food to be better.
Well, then that changed a lot of the wheat into wheat, you know, that was more about being mechanized, not for the benefits of our digestion. Which is also why, you know, the biodiversity of seeds have really, like, decreased because a lot of it is not mechanizable. It’ll just break, you know, the mills or the things to make it pureed.
So we have to understand that food is this business. And until we can kind of go back to the old ways that things were preserved or made; the ancient seeds, you know, the heirloom seeds, and that is really where the story became not just a food company for me because I started, you know, understanding these issues were huge, way beyond me, way beyond Hawaii.
But then Hawaii had the answers to a lot of these issues, you know, in the ahupua’a system and the way the land is managed, in the sacred seeds, in the stories of these seeds, and in the place-based foods, and the, you know, variety of the kalo that was available.
And that’s where I jumped into saying, “Yeah, I’m going to make this into a business because I can see that the powers-that-be don’t think that taro farmers should have more than, you know, a month-to-month lease, even though their kalo takes a year to grow.
So that’s what made me think of, you know, this economic driver that could potentially help get their leases longer or their water rights back. Or I was sort of backending into being, you know, a steward of the land by, you know, playing into this game of the food business.
Akina: So, Brynn, tell us a story real quick of how Voyaging Foods, which is the name of your business, came about. How did something that began in your kitchen as merely a way of meeting a need you had to get, for yourself and for your child, products that are simply not on the shelf in the stores. How did you go from there to actually becoming a business?
Foster: Um-hum. Well, you know, like I said, I was going on these mommy-and-me field trips where we were going to the lo’is, we were talking to farmers, we were understanding what the issues were, how the plants were grown, where the water was coming from.
And I started, you know, making these products made from kalo flour and they were really good. And so not only were babies having them for their teething, but my mom was eating them, and then some friends wanted to eat them. So then, I started making cookies and then having them for sale at farmers markets, but I didn’t have a name for the business.
So that, I really believed in, like, this was something bigger than me, and the name would come. And, you know, as learning goes, you know, there’s this, like, layer of learning that happens, and so that’s how I treated this business.
It’s really, like, divinely led, honestly. Because I have no history — well, I didn’t know I do have a history in kalo — but I didn’t have a known conscious history of it until I started to work with it, eat it, plant it, put it into my life, then it really blossomed.
So that’s the way, you know, the Voyaging Foods’ name came. And then I started learning about the Hokule’a, I had no idea. And then I started learning about Polynesian Voyaging Society. So it was all like this, you know, accumulation together.
Soon as I was learning more about the moon cycles and how all of this history is really the blueprint for how we are, as you know, children of this land, to come, and with our kahea and our kuleana, how we are to, you know, operate in this day and age.
So that’s really how … it was, because the Hokule’a was really like, I want to say a muse, because the Voyaging Foods is really the plants that the Polynesians brought on their open-ocean voyaging canoes when they purposely came to Hawaii or they traveled around the Polynesian triangle.
You know, this wasn’t like we just kind of drifted all those lies that Hokule’a proved how skilled our, you know, society was. So these plants are meant to be shared, obviously, but they’re also like the emergency kit that you would bring on a desolate island, even though, you know, we were very healthy as a people, pre-contact.
Akina: The story that you’re telling, that’s great. And I love hearing your story. What I want to hear also is a bit about the challenges you faced in trying to build your business.
It may be the case that people who have a great idea can go after that great idea, but sometimes there’s difficulty encountered along the way. What are some of the challenges you found that food entrepreneurs face when they’re trying to bring their product to market?
Foster: Well, I was very specific, you know, I was all about taro and I was very specific about Hawaiian-grown taro. So I had a lot of challenges. You know, this is a hundreds-of-years-old problem: not enough land, water issues. So I was really coming up with all of that.
And I hope that is solved within our lifetime. I don’t like to put it into this, like, multi-generational ecological disaster problem that we inherit. I want to see that gone now. And I believe that happens through food that we eat here, around here and culturally.
So yeah, the barriers were many. And I spent many years,you know, before I decided to put this into a business, I went to talk to all the experts that were growing kalo. There was actually a big push in the ‘80s to make taro flour.
UH [University of Hawaii] had a grant that, you know, had a lot of money behind it. They were building machines and they had a patent on a lot of these processes.
And so I met with all the experts that were part of that process. And I said, “Why isn’t this happening? I need this. I want to buy it from you.”
Well, it didn’t happen because the money failed, you know, the grants failed. And I thought, “Wow, this is something I need. This isn’t like a grant. I’m going to make this my life’s mission.”
And so, yeah, the barriers are a lot, but once you find your kind of drive or your group who get you or who needs something as much as you do, then you just stick with them.
But I think talking to too many people in the beginning might be a problem because you will find their problems, and you don’t want to inherit their problems because their situation is not yours. So you can kind of honor their past and say, you know, “I do appreciate the work that you’ve done. And I’d love to collaborate in a way that we’re moving forward.”
Akina: Now, Brynn, you also encountered various regulatory problems, some legal issues, the kind of thing someone doesn’t necessarily think about when they’re baking goods in their kitchen and then want to sell them. What was your experience with that?
Foster: I didn’t know anything about cottage foods. I only knew that you had to be in a commercial kitchen and you had to, you know, do all of these things. So, yeah, I think, I don’t want to say wasted, but I might have spent over 13 years putting too much money and time into participating into the regulatory…
You know, I do love the process of things, I like learning all of these barriers and then I like to pass on the knowledge. So I like to create duplicatable systems for other people to replicate for the betterment of the whole. And so that’s what I did.
And that’s why some people are like, “You’ve been in business over 18 years and, you know, you should be a millionaire by now!”
But the issue is, when you’re also trying to be vertically integrated, growing and harvesting and processing and being gluten-free — which I started before gluten-free was a thing — so I was certified in it all. I pretty much figured all of the hurdles out. But yeah, I wasted a lot of money and a lot of years and I could have saved, you know, a lot of things if I didn’t go down those routes that I didn’t need to because I’m doing low-risk manufacturing.
Kalo and breadfruit and a lot of these canoe plants are low-risk. And I think also there’s a lot of deregulation with a lot of those, especially because, you know, they are cultural and we grow them and it’s part of our cultural rights to also process these. And just like, you know, with poi pounding on poi boards, like there’s certain rights that we have as a culture to continue the way, processing the way that we know best, in a safe manner also.
And I think we’ve come really far. And so we do have a lot of the tools now so that we don’t need to be heavily regulated and we can be partners with people like the Department of Health, to say, “Hey, we’re managing ourselves, you know, probably better than you can. And here’s the data.”
I mean, I remember when I started to go into Whole Foods and when we had to get audited, you know, I gave them a bible that was like three years of just data and information that I had collected and all the details.
And I remember, the auditor came in — I think he was from the mainland — and he just looked at it and he’s like, “I trust you. Wow, you really know your stuff.” You know, he was looking through the pages and saw.
So I think we’re working to, like, have things deregulated, but that doesn’t mean that we’re saying “We’re not going to be washing our hands and going the distance.” We’re going to definitely do that.
Akina: Now one of the challenges you faced was the need for a commercial kitchen to produce certain kinds of foods. How did you face that challenge and what do you say to people who were trying their best to produce food to sell but can’t afford a commercial kitchen?
Foster: Yes, this is exactly why I started to get more involved in cottage foods, because in Hawaii, sometimes it’s who you know. And unfortunately that was even more so 18 years ago when I started.
I was calling all the schools to try and, “Hey, can I use one of your kitchens you’re not using?” And I finally was able to find one, and so I operated in there for over 10 years. And I was at that time, you know, feeling like, “Oh my gosh, I know how fortunate I am to have this kitchen.”
And I know so many other people that are doing amazing products and gluten-free products, things that I needed to eat — and my kids, I wanted them to eat the same way. So I was trying to say, “Hey, you can come use my kitchen,” even though that wasn’t allowed, but I was trying to start new LLCs with these people.
I mean, I was just going over overboard, which is a waste of time and money just because also to be able to collaborate, to, you know, pool your resources so that rent isn’t so high so that you can share people that are helping you in the kitchen so that you can cost-share with ingredients. All of these things are necessary to be able to have a food business in Hawaii.
So, you know, at that time, I was just going off on these tangents, making my own LLCs when I shouldn’t have been doing that with people that were doing great things, but how do you collaborate together and share a kitchen when the kitchen wasn’t allowing you to do that? So there was a lot of hurdles.
Akina: Now, you mentioned partnering with the Department of Health. One of the concerns of the Department of Health, we’ve been told, is safety.
There are people in the community who need to be protected from unscrupulous practices of producers who put food out there that isn’t safe. What are your thoughts when you hear that and how do you respond to it?
Foster: Well, you know, there’s a lot of unpacking to do with that statement alone. The way that I come at it is I want to look at Department of Health as a collaborator. Like I said, I went through all the courses that I needed to do in order to understand what they were looking for, and I wanted to now share that with everyone else because I understand that a lot of people don’t like to go that distance that I did.
But I was in Whole Foods, so I wanted to be understanding what the barriers were. So to make healthy food, definitely the tools available for that knowledge are here now. They weren’t there 10 years ago. They weren’t probably there even seven years ago. You know, we have water activity meters now, hand meters that we can see, you know, how dry is this and what’s the potential for any issues.
So, I think HACCP [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points] is a very interesting course to take because then you understand critical control points. And you really get to kind of have the knowledge of the big guys, but you can still be, “small, but my idea” is what I like to say.
So, we share a lot of this knowledge that I’ve taken and some other people in the industry have taken, so to create safe food. And what I’ve heard and I’ve researched is there hasn’t been any problems with cottage foods and, you know, on the mainland, there hasn’t been any issues with that. So, we know, we hear a lot more issues with the big farmers and the big makers.
And that is upsetting when you’re hearing thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds of produce or poultry is going to waste because of something like that. So that’s why cottage foods is so important to me, is because we’re on more of a smaller scale, so we can change and pivot and really see what our batches are like.
I’m really focused on small batch because we also want to understand the different place-based foods and the different taste profiles of those. So, I really believe this industry is all about place-based and in the small makers. And then we can all collaborate together and then it’s a really big industry.
Akina: Thank you. Now there was a bill proposed in Hawaii’s Legislature last session. It was called the Access to Local Food Act. And what that would have changed would be some of the rules for what foods may be sold in Hawaii. It would have allowed people, for instance, to sell their homemade foods through the mail, or online or through third parties. Do you think those kinds of changes in the Access to Local Food Act would be helpful?
Foster: Absolutely, 100%. And I’m putting, you know, my energy towards this because during the pandemic, I started a collective called the Canoe Plant Collective with my partner. And this bill will support that feeling of “we need to have this collective of small cottage food makers that are doing big things.”
Small doesn’t mean, you know, many and not important. So yes, these issues that we’re bringing forth with shipping, being able to sell at stores and being available on the internet, those are huge to cottage food makers. And it’s something that we definitely need to expand the economic viability of cottage foods in Hawaii.
We’ve seen how Maui needed food and all of these hubs came, but they were all imported. I think that we need to rethink how we’re providing food, how we’re cooking it, how we’re serving it, because there’s a lot of options to, you know, create a hub from the farmed food. And if there’s homemakers that are able to safely process this and distribute it to our local communities, then we’re eliminating shipping altogether, which is important.
Akina: During the pandemic, I was involved in an effort to help local individuals prepare meals for kupuna or for others who were in need. And one of the problems was complying with the regulations that certain foods have to be maintained at certain temperatures.
And so the bill that we were just discussing addresses this. It would allow foods like barbecue or poke to be made and sold at home under certain conditions. But what do you think about that part of the bill?
Foster: Well, I think there’s a lot of different parts of the bill that seem to be kind of wide-reaching, because there’s different regulations for those things.
My kuleana is the low-risk manufacturing, which is no meat, it’s plants, there’s, you know, no allergens. So that makes me feel comfortable because, I don’t understand how all the different time temperature controls that you would need for different, you know, eggs, poultry, meat. That gets into another level.
And I was trained in a little bit of that, but, like I said, my kuleana is in dehydration and drying and making flour and teas. So I definitely know that there’s a lot of opportunity to share the knowledge in how to do that to make it safe. So I would most definitely, if I knew the makers and was able to, you know, understand their process, I would feel safe consuming it.
But that’s what the great thing is, it’s more transparent this way, because they will be able to share their process and you’ll know who they are. Just like knowing your farmer, how they grow their food, what inputs do they use on their, on their produce, on their plants. It’s the same concept, it’s really just getting to know your producers.
Akina: Well, Brynn, we’ve got a minute left and I’m wondering if you could just quickly share one of your own or someone else’s success story in terms of how they’ve been able to make the kind of food they want and take it to market.
Foster: I mean, I just really appreciate my own journey and my own story. Because, you know, one of my successes, when it seems like everything’s too hard and there’s too many barriers, is my favorite memory was we made a pancake mix with kalo flour and ulu flour for the Hokule’a when they went to Tahiti several years ago.
And that was really special to me because it was full circle. It was everything that showed me, yes, this is important. And we’re doing something bigger than ourselves. We’re connecting people through food.
And whether Hokule’a is, you know, sharing aloha when they go around the world, and they open up these new portals of learning. And, like, I just initiated the delearning or the unlearning of what we used to think was so important back in the days, that hasn’t served us well.
So, that was a success story for me, is to be able to have ulu flour and taro flour connecting the people that were on the Hokule’a in a place that they hadn’t been in a long time.
Akina: Well, Brynn, you’ve made me hungry. And so your message is getting through not only to my heart, but my stomach. Thank you so much for being here today. I think you’ve shared a lot of things that people are very interested in and now can come out and be advocates for. Mahalo.
My guest today has been Brynn Foster. She’s the founder and head of Voyaging Foods. It’s been wonderful listening to her story, and I hope you were inspired by it.
I’m Keli’i Akina, president of the Grassroot Institute, and wishing you the very best. We’ll see you next time on ThinkTech Hawaii’s “Hawaii Together.” Aloha.