Kaiser PTSA Farmer’s Market falls victim to COVID

The continued closure of the Kaiser PTSA Farmer’s Market has left an unfillable void in the Kaiser community. Vendors have lost their incomes, and market-goers have lost access to the culinary delight that was the market. With no further Department of Education (DOE) announcements in sight, there is little hope that the market will return this year. 

On August 25, the Department of Education (DOE) distributed a cease-and-desist order to its schools that banned all non-instructional activities on school campuses. As the 25th was a Tuesday (the day the farmers market is held), the farmers market went ahead, with none the wiser. Subsequently, a complaint was made to the DOE, and orders came down. “A call came from my superintendent,” said principal Justin Mew. “And she said, ‘you guys have an open market?…You have to shut it down. Now.’” Since then, the lower levels of the parking lot, where vendors and patrons once gathered, have been empty and lifeless.

Prior to the order, Kaiser’s market had been recognized by the Hawaii Star-Advertiser. An article, Closure of Oahu restaurants brings higher-end food to casual settings, highlighted the market as a destination for chefs migrating from closed restaurants and hotels to open-air booths. Yet, only a week after that article’s publication, the entire operation was forced to shut down. Casual vendors and professional chefs alike were sent away. Mew said that during his call with the superintendent, she referenced a complaint made which had led to the state-wide order. “I think what probably stirred the complaint was the very nice article about the farmers market,” said Mew. “It was allowing the community [to come]. And then the complaint came out right after that.” 

Although professional chefs brought attention to the farmers market, participation from the Kaiser community was already strong. Over the summer, the market had been seeing unprecedented growth, with the number of stalls more than doubling. This is in no small part due to the pandemic, as a number of the new stalls were run by homegrown chefs who had a sudden excess of free time. Even Kaiser students joined in, designing and operating their own booths. 

Senior Namie Sato was one of the newest vendors before the market was shut down. Sato and senior Emi Kim sold a variety of snack items and crafts, with li hing mui lemon peel gummy bears as their centerpiece. At first, the booth, “Kimie,” was just something to do, a distraction from the boredom of quarantine. But the pair came to value the experience. “[We] gained some real world experience…putting the time and hard work into something,” Sato said. Sato would spend hours at home baking, before meeting with Kim for another few hours to prepare signs. They also had to do their own accounting, counting change and maintaining a ledger for the PTSA. Running a business, while initially a challenge, became almost a routine. Sato and Kim not only went through personal growth—their booth was a catalyst for community spirit, and for “making connections with other people,” Sato said. “We would have repeat customers for our li hing gummy bears…With other vendors…sometimes, we gave them food, and sometimes, they gave us some back.”

Kaiser student organizations also used the farmers market to fundraise. With the coronavirus pandemic, the Class of 2021 Leadership knew that raising money would be more important than ever. “Since we know that a lot of people are going through hard times, we wanted to help our class as much as we could,” said class president Jacie Kaneshiro. “Those three dollars less per person can go a long way.” The leadership class already had experience fundraising with lemonade, but hadn’t been selling on a regular basis. The rising popularity of the farmers market gave them an outlet. The class organized a stand (inspired from previous homecomings) selling strawberry and li hing mui lemonade. The new drinks stand was especially important, as “the normal fundraisers, like Panda Express…weren’t going to do as well this year,” said Kaneshiro. Restaurants in particular were hit hard by coronavirus restrictions, but with regular fundraising, Kaneshiro felt the class was starting to make up the difference.

Losing the farmers market was saddening, but expected, for the student entrepreneurs. “I think we all kind of saw it coming,” said Sato of the closure. “I guess we felt a little disappointed.” Though they hadn’t been running their booths for very long, they had grown attached, and they were set to return as soon as possible. When the market reopens, their respective stalls will spring up again. Sato “will go back as soon as they say I can,” she says, looking forward to running her booth with her friend again. And Kaneshiro feels “pretty sure we’re gonna go back again” to fundraise and support their classmates.

The farmers market was a new hub for Hawaii Kai, with vendors and customers providing mutual social interaction. “It was a good place to see people, which gave everyone smiles,” said PTSA organizer Akemi Clyne. And the PTSA is ready to reopen that hub “anytime the DOE gives us the permission to reopen,” she said. But until the DOE reverses its decision, the vendors will be unable to return, and the community will suffer for it.

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