Chicken tenders, steamed rice, corn, steamed broccoli, orange wedges, power punch. This is a typical lunch menu in Hawaii’s public schools. Is this the best we can do to offer the healthiest, most delicious meals to our children?

To be fair, this sounds much better than the traditional slimy Brussels sprouts and microwaved pizza. In fact, for the last decade, schools have been making tremendous efforts to meet USDA nutrition guidelines and invest in local vegetables for the physical health of students, as seen by the successful endeavors of the ʻAina Pono Hawaiʻi State Farm to School Initiative.

Charter schools are supplied with Hawaiian lunches every week through Chef Tammy Smith’s Hale Kealoha Hawaiian Food Restaurant. Such incorporation of local food in student meals has resulted in an increase in meal participation, decrease in total food cost and overall improvement in grades and test scores, while also supporting local farmers and increasing food security for families.

However, if public schools began incorporating Hawaiian ancestral crops into their lunch menus, we would regenerate not only the physical health of future generations, but also their spiritual, emotional, and cultural well-being. We would also bring tangible benefits for farmers, families, local businesses and Hawaii as a whole.

Today, despite the fact that Hawaii is considered more proactive than the mainland in promoting food security, we still import 85% of all foods. In our high schools, 13.4% of students are considered obese. Given that over 53% of students are on free or reduced price meals, breakfast or lunch served at school may be the only nutritious meal some students eat all day.

Promoting traditional production, as in Kaʻonohi, would reap benefits for more than just healthy diets. 

Lunches are crucial times to develop students’ relationships with their peers, health and identities. A healthy meal can make or break not only students’ academic performance, but also their diet habits as maturing adults who may one day have families of their own. 

Some may worry that incorporating Hawaiian crops in public school menus will exclude students not of Hawaiian ancestry. First and foremost, taro is nutritionally superior to the Irish potato as a vitamin-rich, high-fiber starch.

Secondly, kalo is not just “food,” but a spiritually and culturally nourishing being in Hawaiian culture. Kalo is Hāloa, the older sibling of the first chief of the Hawaiian people. The perpetuation of kalo varieties and cultivation practices are intimately connected to the vitality of people and lands of Hawaii in multiple ways. As residents of Hawaii, we should celebrate this as much as we find the imperative to learn the language and social etiquettes of other countries.

Third, taro is also considered a staple in parts of Africa (coco yam), Japan (satoimo), India (saru), South Asia and Oceania. There is rich potential for students of all cultures to find commonalities through traditional crops. Thus, kalo becomes a living metaphor that introduces much needed complex concepts of environmental justice, biodiversity and food sovereignty to schools.

Double Ancestral, Not Just Local, Food Production

While Gov. Ige tries to double Hawaii’s local food production, why can’t we do better and double the state’s ancestral food production to bolster its socioeconomic health? In 2016, Hawaii consumers spent nearly $3.1 billion on imported goods. If only 10% of these purchases were replaced with local and ancestral crop purchases, this would lead to $314 million spent perpetuating Hawaiian culture. With multipliers, some estimate that this could result in an additional $50 million in profit for farmers and creation of 2,300 jobs.

The Hawaii Department of Education has tremendous buying power as it is in charge of supplying 17.5 million meals to about 180,000 students every year, roughly 13% of the state’s total population.

Today, Hawaii is in a taro drought in which there has been a significant increase in consumption of taro (about 6.5 million pounds/year) with a decline in total state taro production (7 million pounds in 2000; 3.5 million pounds in 2016). Hawaii now imports over 2 million pounds of taro each year.

By choosing Hawaiian kalo, we increase demand and create pressure on the Legislature to protect and revitalize our traditional taro patches; provide incentives for taro farmers to continue perpetuating ancestral knowledge that cannot be found in books or on the web; and move Hawaii towards less wasteful, regenerative agriculture with smarter resource utilization. After all, Hawaii sustained itself for centuries without the need for external goods, feeding a population greater than the population of Hawaii today.  

Healthy Food Should Also Be Delicious

To motivate students to be more healthy, we need to shift from forcing them to make the right choice to making healthy foods tasty and something they want to partake in preparing.

Increasingly, research has shown that taste was more important than education in getting people to eat healthy foods. Partnerships between farmers, chefs and elders could help bring back the savoriness of kalo. Let’s advocate for students to regularly work in wetland and upland taro patches, cook with chefs to explore the taste and textures of different heirloom varieties and listen to traditional stories about food. 

Incorporating ancestral foods in school meals is how we begin to nurture interdisciplinary, empathetic, and healthy leaders of Hawaii’s future. Nationally, schools have begun to see that the solution to creating a more sustainable and healthy future for our children is at the end of our forks.

Now, Hawaii must understand that the solution is at the base of our pōhaku — our traditional pounding stones — and depends on our ancestors and cultural foundations.

Here are some ways we could advocate for kalo in school lunches:

  • Support Senate Bill 3038 by Senator Mike Gabbard to exempt taro farming and poi milling from state taxes up to the first $100,000 gross income, and also exempt fallow lands less than or equal to what is in active production. 
  • Grow taro, breadfruit and native plants in your back yard.
  • Support and volunteer at local taro farms and non-profit organizations like Kaʻonohi Poi.
  • Attend your child’s school’s PTA meetings and advocate for taro in school lunches.
  • Encourage your family in the current issues surrounding the history and culture of Hawaii. 

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About the Author

  • Lia "Bear" Kim
    Lia “Bear” Kim is from the ahupuaʻa (land division) of Hauʻula, on the moku (district) of Koʻolauloa, Oʻahu. A graduate of the Agripharmatech program at Windward Community College, she is currently a third-year undergraduate at Stanford University in California studying sustainable food and agriculture. She is also the biocultural diversity coordinator at Asia Pacific International School, co-directing a culturally-relative agricultural program.