For three years, a collective of 115 small farms on three islands supplied the state’s 257 public schools with tens of thousands of pounds of breadfruit, sweet potato, banana and papaya, furthering a movement to feed Hawaii’s youth healthier, made-from-scratch meals starring local ingredients.
The Hawaii Ulu Cooperative helped make it possible for school cafeterias to add new menu items, such as ulu beef stew, green papaya chicken soup and sweet potato pie. When dishes featuring local ingredients replaced processed food imports, more students opted to eat cafeteria meals.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and student meals changed.
With students shut out of their schools, cafeteria staff pivoted to grab-and-go meals that relied more heavily on food shipped in from the mainland.
Now, nearly two years into the pandemic, advocates say they are frustrated that student meals continue to include fewer local ingredients at a time when the state is urging the DOE to funnel more of its $125 million food service operating budget into the local economy.
Local stew beef, formerly featured in dishes of ulu beef stew and beef curry, has been taken off the menu. And the ulu co-op, which had been selling approximately 60,000 pounds of food a year to the DOE, saw its business with the public school system plummet to zero.
“The pandemic was out of anyone’s control,” said Dana Shapiro, general manager of the Hawaii Ulu Cooperative. “And just like all the hotels stopped buying from us, the DOE stopped buying from us, and that’s understandable. The difference is everyone else has come back and they have still not come back.
“I think it’s more a product of human decision and leadership than anything else,” Shapiro added. “The DOE needs to make a decision that they want to support the local economy again and they want to support farmers again and so far that decision hasn’t been made.”
Bolstered by more than a decade of grassroots-led advocacy work and millions of dollars in public and private financial investment, the drive to infuse school meals with a larger share of locally grown alternatives to mainland imports has steadily gained momentum, culminating in the passage of a new law that requires the DOE to boost locally grown foods in student meals to 30% by 2030.
In July, Gov. David Ige signed Act 175 to transfer what’s called the Farm to School program from under the auspices of the state Department of Agriculture to the DOE. In addition to setting the 2030 benchmark, the legislation calls on the DOE to accelerate garden- and farm-based education and expand relationships between public schools and agricultural communities.
The DOE, however, has not articulated a plan to implement Act 175, leaving advocates to question why the department is holding its strategy so close to the chest.
The department, which serves 100,000 student meals daily, also hasn’t publicized a near-term plan to return to the level of local food purchasing that it had achieved before the onset of the pandemic.
“I feel like we’re at an impasse,” said state Rep. Amy Perruso. “It’s bizarre because we have this synergy, we have this public understanding about the need to move to local food purchases for our local institutions, including schools, prisons and hospitals, and frankly what I’ve seen is the department pushing back hard.”
In October the DOE finalized its menu for the 2022-2023 school year, but advocacy groups have not seen it and it’s unclear how much local food will be consumed by students at school next year, said Daniela Spoto, director of anti-hunger initiatives at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.
“I think a lot of people had high hopes that Farm to School was going to happen before the pandemic and now it seems like the furthest thing,” Spoto said. “We’ve been trying to be supportive and it just seems like they’re really struggling.”
But Spoto said she remains hopeful that pressure from community partners can help get school meals back on track.
DOE spokesman Derek Inoshita declined to make someone from the School Food Services Branch available for an interview for this story.
The School Food Services Branch is preparing a legislative report that will provide a detailed breakdown of the DOE’s strategy for reaching the goal of serving students 30% local ingredients in cafeteria meals, according to Inoshita. The report, he said, will be submitted to lawmakers before the start of the new year.
The report is also expected to include the status of the department‘s progress in meeting the local meal goal, an accounting of the percentage of food served in public schools that consists of locally sourced ingredients by county and an analysis of the costs associated with the farm to school meals program including any savings realized.
Plagued by key staffing shortages — the head of the School Food Services Branch is a temporary hire and the farm to school coordinator position charged with actualizing Act 175 has been vacant for more than a year — the DOE during the pandemic has divested in programs that lead to local food purchases.
At the start of this school year the department discontinued the Harvest of the Month program that had supported monthly purchases of about 11,000 pounds of a rotating feature ingredient sourced locally. In the past, the program featured kalo in kalo bowls, purple sweet potato in a Thanksgiving pie and grass-fed beef in a loco moco.
The DOE also stopped implementing the USDA fresh fruit and vegetable program, which provided $1.8 million in federal funds to low-income schools to serve fresh fruits and vegetables as snacks between meals during the school day. Historically the program supported local farmers who grow starfruit, longan and lychee.
“Before the pandemic we saw a glimmer of, ‘Oh, this can really happen,’” said Natalie McKinney, senior program director at Kokua Hawaii Foundation. “For us there’s disappointment, as well as, I would say, a little bit of frustration around the backpedal.”
Meanwhile, McKinney said it’s been upsetting to watch other institutions inspired by the farm-to-school movement, such as hospitals, continue to make strides toward serving more local food in their facilities while the DOE appears unwilling or unable to recover from the backslide.
Until DOE leadership recommits to farm to school initiatives, community advocates say they question whether the governor’s legislation will translate into action.
“If we just pass (the legislation) and then we don’t pressure them, nothing’s going to move forward,” said Nicole Milne, vice president of food and agriculture initiatives at The Kohala Center.
“With change in leadership comes change in ideas of how programs should be run.” — Sarah Freeman, Hawaii County food access coordinator
DOE officials have revealed little about their thinking on how to put more local food on students plates. But one strategy they’ve discussed with farm-to-school advocates would establish regional kitchens to service clusters of nearby schools.
But critics say eliminating the need for every school to have its own kitchen would likely reduce the need for cafeteria staff at a time when many advocates want to see greater investment in cafeteria workers. It could also pose a problem when school buildings are used as public shelters during public emergencies and natural disasters.
“They want to move to a centralized kitchens model, which would create processed food out of our local food and then distribute that to each of the schools,” Perruso said. “I couldn’t be more at odds with that approach.”
Figuring out a procurement strategy is another important piece of the farm-to-school puzzle, said Sarah Freeman, who is the food access coordinator for Hawaii County and previously worked with the Hawaii Farm to School Hui. She said there appears to be a rift in thinking between advocacy groups that have been pushing the farm-to-school agenda for years and some newer members of the DOE leadership.
For example, Freeman said many advocates would like to see the DOE prioritize food grown on Kauai, for example, for Kauai schools over food flown in from another island.
But Freeman said it’s unclear whether the DOE would support a procurement strategy that emphasizes factors other than price.
“One of the larger stumbling blocks is some of our advocates in the DOE left and there is new leadership, and with change in leadership comes change in ideas of how programs should be run,” Freeman said.
Freeman said she’d like to see the DOE partner with local farmers to scale up their growing capacity by offering a future contract that would oblige the DOE to purchase a predetermined quantity of their crops over a period of time. This could give farmers the security they need to invest in a major crop expansion.
Food system experts say it’s also important to ensure that the DOE’s escalating investment in local food doesn’t result in a reduction of the available share of local products at grocery stores, restaurants and other large institutions.
Rather than move local food from one market to another, it’s crucial that the farm-to-school program actually helps Hawaii grow its agricultural economy and, in doing so, benefits farmers of all sizes, according to Hunter Heaivilin, a food system resilience consultant with the Hawaii Public Health Institute and a longtime food system planner in Honolulu.
“You can easily give a larger operator here another thousand acres and a state contract, and we could get the local food on the plate,” Heaivilin said. “But does that meet the goals that are held by the farm-to-school community? I don’t think so. And so there still needs to be better systems in place to ensure that our focus is less on calories and more on livelihoods because, up to this point, it’s about things getting produced, not who benefits from the growth of this industry.”
“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.
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