The Hawaii Department of Education is the 10th largest public school district in the United States. It extends from the Big Island to Kauai and everywhere in between.

This means that we have the same people facilitating school lunches at Waianae High School on Oahu as we do for King Kekaulike High School on Maui. It is time that we localize our public school food system in Hawaii.

Shipping in frozen foods to over 260 schools statewide is illogical and irresponsible. A centralized food distribution system wastes time, resources and money. The state expends $27 million of public funds to pay for school meals. When we rely on out-of-state manufacturing companies, this money vanishes from the islands.

Fresh local produce is affordable at venues like the Kalihi farmers’ market. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

Hawaii’s public schools should be serving the best food out of anywhere in the country. We have the farms with the best soil, local farmers with the best knowledge of the land, and a community that understands the importance of supporting local workers. You hear about it every day on the TV commercials, “Try buy local!”

And we do try. Shoutout and mahalo to Foodland Farms, Times and the aunties on the side of the road near Turtle Bay for supplying us with kalo and fresh lilikoi. We love that you give us an outlet to support our farmers around our own dinner tables. But localizing our school meals offers far greater opportunity for positive change than buying local on an individual basis.

Local Meals Make Sense

Economically, serving local foods in school meals makes sense. The DOE receives close to $54 million from the federal government for school food funding. We can take this money and funnel it to local farmers, thus pumping tens of millions of dollars into the local economy annually. This process will allow farmers to expand and to invest in their communities. It will promote the creation of more jobs in the agricultural sector and it will make Hawaii less dependent on the continental United States.

By connecting local farms with schools, we are able to invest in the health and the education of our youth. Serving fresh produce in school meals will increase the health and energy of the students, allowing them to be more engaged in class activities. But as we all know, education is not exclusive to a classroom.

Local farmers will not only be suppliers, but also educators. Farmers would not only teach basic farming techniques, but also provide an opportunity to become more engaged in Hawaiian culture. Hawaii’s connection with food is diminishing quickly. We are importing  approximately 60 percent of fruits and vegetables and upwards of 65 percent of fish. A connection with native food and agriculture is vital to the education of Hawaiian culture and to a sustainable food supply.

Increasing local foods served in the public school system is an opportunity for Hawaii to shift away from its reliance on food imports. Individually, it is very difficult to make a serious impact, no matter how often you buy local. According to Hawaii Business magazine, Hawaii public schools serve approximately 24 million meals each year. Even a small change, to a food system of this size, would make a drastic difference.

This must be a community effort involving politicians, the DOE, farmers, teachers, students and families. A reform of the Hawaii public school food system would be a huge step for Hawaii in becoming a more self-reliant state. We have the chance to come together to create a community-oriented food system that would  benefit local farmers, Hawaii’s youth, the local economy and the prosperity of Hawaiian culture.

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