Living with the highest food and energy costs in the nation, many Hawaii residents face difficult choices when it comes to reining in monthly expenses.

Rather than cook a nutritious, culturally authentic meal at the end of the work day, it’s not uncommon for parents to opt to save money, time and energy by feeding their families high-calorie fast food.

In some communities, cheeseburgers and french fries have all but replaced a traditional diet of poi, squid luau and fresh tropical fruit.

On Kauai, a new farm-to-school pilot program is trying to reinforce the mind-and-body benefits that come with access to nutritious, culturally relevant foods by offering an innovative school meal program to more than 200 students at Kawaikini New Century and Ke Kula Niihau O Kekaha Hawaiian public charter schools.

Students help build the garden fence at Kawaikini New Century charter school on Kauai. Courtesy of Malama Kauai

Bolstered by a $170,000 commitment from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Malama Kauai’s three-year pilot initiative aims to develop a traditionally grounded menu by sourcing at least 60 percent of all meat and produce — kalo, breadfruit, sweet potato and beef, for example — from Hawaii ranches and farms.

On a recent school day, the program provided students with a lunch of chicken lau lau, poi, mixed green salad, onion and tomato pakalau salad and starfruit.

Called Malaai Kula, the school meal program is the first of its kind on Kauai. In addition to feeding students, the initiative will also integrate weekly lessons on nutrition and agriculture into the K-12 curriculum.

“Our aim is to create a localized school food and educational model that not only feeds our students’ bodies and minds, but also contributes to our local agricultural economy through the lens of Hawaiian culture,” says Megan Fox, executive director of Malama Kauai, a nonprofit working toward the creation of a more sustainable Kauai.

“Here on Kauai it’s so easy for us to grow taro and ulu and these starchy vegetables that are super nutritious and build off the Native Hawaiian diet, and these foods are 10 times healthier for kids than what most kids are eating at their schools.”

“Our farmers are not growing potatoes for french fries. They are growing breadfruit. We are trying to take advantage of that, and it’s really exciting. It’s our kuleana to make sure our kids are fed and fed well.”

The origin of the Malaai Kula program extends back to 2015, when Kawaikini and Ke Kula Niihau charter schools were left with no food service after losing their former vendors. Ke Kula Niihau had a kitchen available at its OHA-owned school building, and worked with Malama Kauai to fund a school garden and kitchen manager position in order to roll out a full breakfast, lunch and snack meal program.

A school lunch by Chef Hoku and Ke Ke Kula Niihau school with chicken lau-lau, poi and salad. Courtesy of Malama Kauai

The school has since started serving some farm-to-table fare, including school-grown salad greens and taro burgers.

Kawaikini, on the other hand, had no kitchen facility. The school immediately started fundraising for a commercial kitchen trailer. In the interim, Aunty Lorna Cummings-Poe volunteered to cook lunches three days per week at the school where her three grandchildren are enrolled.

With the OHA funding, Kawaikini will now be able to hire a kitchen manager so that the school no longer has to rely on a volunteer chef and food donations from local farms to feed its students. Students at both charter schools will receive lunches every school day, with breakfast to be included next year.

“It was kind of like an emergency,” Fox explains. “When the program started we just needed to get these kids some kind of food program so that they could go to school and learn and have something to eat, and now it’s going to be a really thoughtful, supportive, planned-out food program.”

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