I was surprised to find out from a friend that public school cafeterias may not serve any of the food that students grow in their school gardens.

My friend was invited to a public school to demonstrate her recipe for a healthy “green drink.”

When she said she wanted to use kale from the school’s garden for her demonstration, she was told that was not allowed.

It’s true. Glenna Owens, the director of the Department of Education’s Food Services Branch, says school-grown food cannot be served in any school cafeteria, primarily for food safety reasons.

The idea is to protect students from food-born illnesses and the state from potential lawsuits if a student is stricken with food poisoning.

No Hawaii student appears to have gotten sick from eating school garden food, according to Nancy Redfeather of the Hawaii Island School Garden Network.

It makes you wonder if schools aren’t being too cautious. Where did common sense go about carefully washing produce and keeping a garden sanitary?

But like everything today it’s complicated, partially driven by fear of litigation.

Owens says all food served at Hawaii’s 256 public schools must have what is called “a line of liability.” That means the DOE must be able to trace all food back to the vendors who sold the produce, and all vendors must have liability insurance to bear the cost of possible lawsuits.

Courtesy of Hawaii Department of Education

The farm bounty for students of Makaha Elementary School.

Federal rules also require that all public school students have equal access to the same food. If a carrot is served in a school lunch, each student must be able to have a carrot. Public school gardens usually don’t grow enough produce to serve an entire student body.

That’s the bureaucracy under which we operate. Whether that’s good or overbearing — you must judge.

Then, there is the question processing food from a school garden. Owens says cafeteria workers have only a few hours to prepare food for hundreds of students. Uncut whole vegetables from a school farm would require additional time for cleaning and cutting into serving portions.

Owens says, in terms of food safety, all of the food in the 100,000 meals that public school students are served each day is purchased from vendors whose food safety reputations are at stake. If a fruit or vegetable is contaminated, it can be traced directly back to them.

Some of the produce the vendors sell is from annually audited farms that are certified as having “Good Agricultural Practices.” GAP certification involves following a voluntary set of guidelines the Food and Drug Administration promulgated in 1999 that deal with safety issues such as food-worker hygiene and the proper handling of pesticides and fertilizers, including animal manures.

No Hawaii public school garden is GAP certified, although four high schools on Hawaii Island are working toward that.

Food Services director Owens says, “When it comes to food safety, I must adhere to the highest standard. To me, food safety is non-negotiable.”

Owens says the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which sets the rules for public school lunch service, encourages the use of student-grown produce in school cafeterias, but unfortunately she says “the USDA is gray when it comes to safety rules of how to serve school garden food. It offers us no black and white guidelines.”

She says when gardens were started in public schools, the intention was educational, not to create a food source for school cafeterias.

Jim Hollyer, farm food safety coach for the University of Hawaii’s School of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, helps the state’s farmers get their farms GAP certified. He also helps schools to teach students good farming practices.

Hollyer says he has found food safety problems in most of the public and private school gardens he has visited.

“Children and teachers are not professional food producers. I am not sure if the children really know how to manage their personal hygiene to protect their food handling,” he says. “They don’t understand how the food they are touching could impact a fellow student.”

Hollyer says he would prefer that students consume their school garden produce in small settings such as their individual science classrooms rather than in a large cafeteria where problems could happen.

“Some people call me overly paranoid,” he says, “but I feel the best practices must be followed.”

“A food-borne illness outbreak in a school cafeteria, from a school garden, would be unfortunate,” Hollyer says. “It could have consequences for all school gardens in the state. The best way to protect students and schools is for them to learn and use Good Agricultural Practices in gardens and use school-grown produce outside of the central cafeteria.”

Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi is a home gardener herself, growing a variety of vegetables for her husband and daughter that includes snap peas, beets, lettuce, carrots and Swiss chard.

Courtesy of Hawaii Department of Education

Boys from Makaha Elementary School on a non-profit farm near their school.

In an emailed statement, Matayoshi said, “As someone who enjoys gardening at home, I realize the learning and excitement that comes with consuming produce that you’ve grown. However, there are issues we cannot ignore that prevent us from incorporating school gardens into our commercial food services.”

Matayoshi points out that individual teachers and schools working with private partners have found creative, educational ways for students to sample school garden food outside school cafeterias.

Teachers can serve food from school gardens as snacks outside of school cafeterias and teachers and students can cook and eat student-grown produce in classrooms when the foods are part of a learning experience.

But even doing that has rules. DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz says a school principal must say it’s OK, and students must take a note home to their parents to let them know that student-grown food will be served in a classroom. The note informs parents where to call if they object.

Kokua Hawaii Foundation, an environmental education project founded by singer Jack Johnson, has helped 15 public schools set up gardens as part of its Active Integrating Nutrition and Agriculture program (AINA).

Program director Kaliko Amona said AINA’s initial goal was to get school-grown food into public school cafeterias, but after it faced the DOE’s policies and rules prohibiting that, the program concentrated on creating more ways to make eating garden food in the classroom into an exciting learning experience.

Amona says an example of ways to incorporate such curriculum would be if the students were studying Hawaiian culture, they might eat school-grown taro and sweet potatoes. Similarly, fifth-grade students studying the American West and Native Americans might eat squash, beans and corn harvested from their school garden.

Redfeather, of the non-profit Hawaii Island School Garden Network, says students from Waimea Middle School eat snacks such as fresh peas and tomatoes every day from the school’s one-acre garden. Redfeather says research has shown children will eagerly eat anything they grow themselves.

Some private schools, including Punahou, prohibit the serving of school-grown food in school lunches. Punahou cafeteria director Marcia Wright says the school’s garden is not food-safety certified.

Wright says when students harvest and cook a vegetable from the school garden in their classroom she buys that particular vegetable from her food vendors and serves it in the cafeteria to all the other students so they can sample it as well. That way everyone gets to share in the experience.

Wright says student tend to get more excited about trying a vegetable when they know their peers have grown it.

Three states, Alaska, Oregon and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia, have passed laws to allow school cafeterias to serve school garden produce.

Hawaii state lawmakers have also tried to promote the serving of public school garden food in cafeterias, but so far their efforts have failed.

House Bill 478 was introduced last year to authorize schools to grow food in school gardens for consumption in school lunch programs as long as the gardens were “inspected and certified as safe by the State Department of Education,” but the measure stalled when it moved from the House to the Senate.

In testimony last year, Schools Superintendent Matayoshi opposed the bill, citing food safety and liability concerns, as well as the fact the bill lacked a funding-mechanism to pay for the additional cost of setting up a food-safe, school garden-to-cafeteria program.

DISCUSSIONS: Should the DOE do more to integrate school-grown food into school programs? If so, what?

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