People drive food systems. From farm to table – the complex system that enables production, delivery, processing, procurement, and consumption of food products is characterized by a myriad of actors, players, and stakeholders who have different roles in providing for one of the most basic needs for human survival: food.

Transformation of food systems, therefore, requires careful study of the people behind this complex system. Who are they? How are they organized and networked? What are their values? How do they relate to each other? Who exercises dominance within the system? Which groups yield the most power in influencing policy decisions? How do social networks arise as sub-groups within society?

The Hawai‘i Public Health Institute serves as the “backbone” for a multi-sectoral and multi-source funded initiative: “Transforming Hawaii’s Food Systems Together (THFST)” that seeks to build statewide capacity and pave the way for a more sustainable and resilient food system (THFST 2021).

One of the early knowledge products of the initiative is a Social Network Analysis, led by Dr. Noa Lincoln of the University of Hawai‘i that seeks to capture and analyze the social network of actors and relationships in Hawaii’s food system to understand the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for working with different groups to enable change in the food systems – toward sustainability, equity, and resilience. (The content of this short article is based on an Executive Summary of this research project).

Methodology:

Four independent data sets were collected: (1) a targeted statewide survey of influential individuals, (2) an open survey of participants at the Hawai‘i Island Food Summit, (3) a survey of individuals in the University of Hawai‘i system identified working on food systems, and (4) constructed networks of the several key networks related to local food-related to the goals of THFST.

Analysis was conducted on the data sets independently and as an amalgamated network in order to (1) describe the situation of the THFST project in relation to other efforts; (2) assess the appropriateness of the advisory committee, and (3) provide insights into how social networks may be better leveraged to support food system transformation. The resulting data set comprised of 1,650+ individuals and organizations connected through 3,300+ social relationships.

Key findings:

1) Core organizations and networks of high importance were the Hawai‘i Farmers’ Union United and the Hawai‘i Farm Bureau. Key organizations providing farmer assistance were Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture (HDOA), Kohala Center, and University of Hawai‘i College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR). Nonprofits focused on system-level change were Hawai‘i Good Food Alliance and the Agricultural Leadership Foundation.

2) Important groups that were poorly connected to influential networks included:
The Hawai‘i Food Industry Association and Hawai‘i Food Manufacturers Association, funders, and other philanthropic representatives. Agencies that were conspicuously absent were the military/ Department of Defence, the Agricultural Development Corporation, and the Agricultural Diagnostics Services Center. While not absent, representatives of key tourism agencies, as well as the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, were considered underrepresented.

3) The THFST team and advisory board was found to have exceptional network reach, with main limitations extending into gaps identified above. However, substantial programmatic overlap was identified between the social networks of THFST and the “Ag Hui,” and to a lesser extent the Hawai‘i Good Food Alliance.

4) The University of Hawai‘i system has highly effective activities, such as Go Farm, Kapiolani Culinary Center, and the Maui Innovation Center, but also that the research component of the University is highly insular and likely servicing an agricultural research sector rather than the local agricultural sector.

5) Other findings: 1) Faith-based players should be engaged as they play an important role in mobilizing community members for food distribution; 2) Nonprofits penetrate and provide vital services to communities as opposed to the University or government agencies.

6) There is increased social coordination, indicating that Hawaii’s local food system is becoming more collaborative and connected.

7) Food hubs and the Food Hub Hui are playing an increasingly important role in strengthening local food systems.

8) Food Access Coordinator positions are key nodes and speak to the importance of dedicated positions that seek to bridge gaps across systems.

From a public health perspective – engagement in food systems transformation is now core business. Access to nutritious food is fundamental to achieving better health for the peoples of Hawai‘i. Supporting local food production addresses poverty, food insecurity, and health disparities. The COVID-19 pandemic impacted 48% of households with children reporting being food insecure. Unhealthy diets, pre-pandemic were and continue to be the leading risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions.

Shifting to healthier diets requires more than education and awareness of the population. Changes in the food environment – and ensuring fairness and equity — are necessary to bring about changes in population health. To transform the food systems of Hawai‘i, the application of social network analysis provides an evidence base for prioritizing outreach and partnerships and creates an imperative for establishing new relationships with other sectors that are responsible for the “causes behind the causes” of poor health or the social determinants of health.

This Social Network Analysis along with other knowledge products and activities that are produced through THFST seeks to build statewide capacity and paves the way for a more robust, sustainable, and resilient food system, especially in times of crisis. This initiative harnesses the momentum from the COVID-19 pandemic, documents lessons learned, articulates policy and planning recommendations, and sets up the State to expand large-scale institutional purchasing of local foods. To learn more about THFST visit transforminghawaiifoodsystem.org or contact Dr. Susan Mercado at susan@hiphi.org.