Passage of Poi Bill a Major Milestone for Hawaii

The State of Hawaii Legislation recognizes the significance of Pa'i 'Ai as a traditional means to sustain your family.

Tuesday was a great victory: the Pa’i ‘Ai Bill, also called the Poi Bill or SB 101, officially survived the legislative process when the Senate and House voted unanimously to pass the measure. With Gov. Abercrombie’s signature, this bill will change the status quo for traditionally pounded poi, or pa’i ‘ai. Except in certain circumstances, the Hawaii Department of Health requires that food providers get a permit and comply with a host of one-size-fits-all rules.

Without an exception for pa’i ‘ai, cultural practitioners were unable to sell or even give away their pounded kalo (taro), once the staple food of Hawaiians. The rules did not honor the traditional preparation and implements used in this time-tested Kanaka Maoli culinary art, nor did the rules allow consumers to make the ultimate decision about whether or not they would assume the risk of eating food made with (gasp!) a porous stone. With the Governor’s signature, that will all change. New DOH rules will allow for consumer choice, provided the pa’i ‘ai chefs provide a disclaimer and comply with a few safety requirements.

This bill has the potential to be a game changer. The starchy kalo needed to make high quality pa’i ‘ai has led to kalo farmers getting a decent price per pound. This is also an entry point for folks that would otherwise have no interest in other issues associated with kalo, like land and water. Ancient Hawaiians elevated the art of cultivating kalo to a level not found anywhere else in the world. Yet, today the acres of land in kalo production pale in comparison to historic levels. There are people that may not like poi but find they love pa’i ‘ai, with its mochi-like consistency and mild sweetness. When someone with a newfound taste for pa’i ‘ai has trouble finding it because there is not enough kalo to meet the demand, the stage is set for more folks to take up farming. In particular, this bill makes kalo farming viable because it allows a new farmer to make a value-added food product, pa’i ‘ai, without a heavy investment in a commercial kitchen. As an island state dependent on outside sources for food, looking for solutions like this that encourage local food production and processing are key for our long-term economic, environmental, social and cultural health.

Some people ask me, “Why is a girl from Texas working on something like this?” A background in culinary arts coupled with a legal education at the William S. Richardson School of Law provided me with a skill set to look at an issue that combined food and law. The cultural element is important for me in a way that is difficult to express in words. On a tangible level, I grew closer to kalo by spending time in lo’i (taro patches), learning about the many varieties of kalo, making my own papa ku’i ‘ai (poi pounding board) and pohaku ku’i ‘ai (poi pounding stone); the intangible level encompasses a deep respect for Hawai’i’s host culture and their connection to kalo as Haloa, their ancestor with whom a reciprocal relationship of giving and receiving continues from many generations past. For me, the Pa’i ‘Ai Bill was like streams of my past and present merging into one river, winding its way to Hawaii’s State Legislature.

As far as the legislature is concerned, I am a novice...at best. The learning curve was steep this session, as it was my first. The lessons that follow are not meant for battle-tested activists and lobbyists; rather, these are just a few things I picked up this session, from one newbie to another:

1. Calendar is King

I had NO idea how important the session calendar was before I started. Let’s say you have a great bill that everyone loves. If the bill is not introduced in time, it’s dead. If the bill is introduced in time but the bill is not assigned to committees and scheduled for hearings in time, it’s dead. If the bill is heard but the committee report is not issued in time, it’s dead. If the bill moves through all the committees but not in time to make the deadline for it to cross over to the other house, it’s dead. Then, it needs to be assigned to committees, scheduled for hearings and go through the whole process in the other house, making all the deadlines again. If not, it’s dead. These do-or-die deadlines can create the kind of situation where you feel like you have a small child that must be watched constantly. The folks in the Public Access Room are like having a wise, kind, patient grandmother that has helped rear thousands of children. They have copies of the session calendar and can help you decode the deadlines.

2. Shoot for the Stack

There was a guy that just got a job in a legislator’s office. On the first day, the legislator approaches him and said, “I want you to follow this bill very closely because we have a lot of interest from the community on this one.” The legislator then reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out 16 letters and hands them to the guy. This story was told to me to illustrate how responsive politicians really are to community interest. Sixteen letters was “a lot of interest.” It shows that statement about your voice making a difference is actually true. In about 30 seconds, someone can log on to http://www.capitol.hawaii.gov and submit testimony for a bill. Since you generally only have 48 hours to submit testimony, you have to check your bill status online regularly and let everyone know it’s time to send in emails for your bill. Right before the hearing, all those emails are printed out and stacked up for each bill on the agenda. It always helps to have people there in person but getting a nice stack of emails shows that there is “a lot of interest,” even if everyone is not able to come down and testify in person.

3. Give Updates and Mahalos Regularly

Though I have only one session under my belt, I imagine it would be tough to get a bill through without giving regular updates and thanks to the folks that are involved. At the Capitol, it is important to spend some time meeting and then thanking the Reps and Senators that will be directly involved with your bill (especially if they are chairs of committees your bill is assigned to), but equally important is to give thanks to their office staff. The folks in the offices work hard to keep track of hundreds of bills. Yours is just another piece of paper, so spend the time to thank them for keeping yours moving. Outside the capitol, use social media or emails to let the folks sending in those supportive emails how your bill is progressing. One supporter of the Pa’i ‘Ai bill told me it was nice to get updates, since it seemed like often people asked for help but never followed up to let everyone know the outcome.

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