Randall Tanaka, who oversees food services at Hawaii’s 257 public schools, laid out a vision earlier this week for pursuing school lunch as a vehicle to prop up local agriculture while improving menus with more nutritious and delicious meals.

Hawaii GrownWith a $120 million operating budget, the Hawaii Department of Education’s School Food Services Branch annually purchases about $45 million worth of food — most of which is processed food imported from the mainland.

But if a sizable and steady percentage of the school food budget was redirected toward local agriculture, Tanaka said it would give Hawaii’s farmers and ranchers an economic boost while helping to improve the state’s precarious food self-sufficiency at a time when supply chain issues have reduced the reliability of shipping.

“Sounds simple, (but it’s a) little harder to do because that’s not how we built our food system for schools,” Tanaka said Thursday at Hawaii Agricultural Foundation’s quarterly event series “Eat Think Drink.” “We put Chicken McNuggets in the oven better than anybody else because it’s … efficient to do that.”

His remarks offered a first glimpse at how the public school system plans to replace processed food imports with more fresh, local ingredients since the passage of a new law that requires the DOE to boost locally grown foods in student meals to 30% by 2030.

Holomua Elementary School students enjoy lunch with plastic barriers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Holomua Elementary School students ate lunch with plastic barriers functioning as a protective public health measure during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Gov. David Ige signed Act 175 into law in July, which set the 2030 benchmark. The legislation also calls on the DOE to accelerate garden- and farm-based education and expand relationships between public schools and agricultural communities.

Until Thursday, however, the DOE had not publicly articulated a strategy to implement the legislation, leaving advocates to question why the department would keep its plan under wraps while dealing with key staffing shortages and a backslide in local food purchasing since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tanaka, who was named assistant superintendent for the DOE’s Office of Facilities and Operations in January 2021, said he’s spent the last year visiting cafeterias across the state and on the mainland, taking note of opportunities and obstacles to implementing a robust farm-to-school program in Hawaii.

He rattled off a long list of challenges — the DOE’s poor data collection capabilities to track local food procurement, aging school cafeteria infrastructure, cafeteria staff that need retraining to work with raw ingredients and the need to design new menus that meet U.S. Department of Agriculture food standards while making use of Hawaii’s unique cornucopia of agricultural products.

Russell Hata, president and CEO of the local foodservice distributor Y. Hata & Co. and an event panelist, underscored three major stakeholders in the DOE’s endeavor to invest in more local food.

Students would benefit from fresher, more nutritious food. Farmers would benefit from having consistent demand from a new customer that in many cases will offer them the opportunity to increase their scale.

And if farmers achieve larger scale, he said, the third beneficiary could be the public at large because having more large-scale farms in Hawaii would likely result in lower prices for local food.

Most of Hawaii’s 7,300 farms are small farms and nearly 80% of them have annual sales under $25,000.

But with the DOE as a new market opportunity, some small and medium-sized farms may be able to grow their operations to meet the needs of a school system that turns out 100,000 meals per day.

Randall Tanaka, DOE, Facilities, school, Kapolei Middle School
Randall Tanaka, the DOE assistant superintendent in charge of facilities and operations, is leading the department’s effort to invest more in local food. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2020

One hurdle, however, is that the average public school building is 61 years old, according to Tanaka. This means that the cost of refurbishing existing school cafeterias with modern electrical infrastructure would be significant.

Rather than upgrade kitchen equipment in all 257 public schools at an estimated cost of $9 million to $15 million per school, Tanaka said he wants to build a much smaller number of regional kitchens to service clusters of nearby schools.

Each regional kitchen would cost between $35 million and $45 million, Tanaka said. On Oahu, Tanaka said he’d like to build regional kitchens in Wahiawa, Nanakuli and Kapahulu.

“The variable I haven’t figured out yet is the transportation of the (food) to the schools,” Tanaka said, “but we’ll get there.”

Critics of the centralized kitchen model 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.

But Hata endorsed Tanaka’s plan to centralize cooking in a small number of large kitchens as a way to streamline the delivery of raw ingredients from farmers to school kitchens and, ultimately, the cafeterias where students gather to eat.

“You have 7,000 farmers, a whole bunch of small, little guys, and they can’t deliver to a bunch of schools,” Hata said, noting his support of Tanaka’s idea of centralized kitchens as a way to “really expedite us getting to the point where we can supply purchases of farm-grown foods and get it to the schools.”

Another obstacle is increasing student desire for school-made lunch. At James Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, for example, only 600 students eat school meals out of 3,200 students, according to Tanaka.

“Uncle, the food is junk,” Tanaka said a student informed him when he asked why he doesn’t eat school lunch.

Rather than buy cafeteria food, Tanaka said the student he spoke to prefers to eat on the other side of the schoolyard fence at a manapua food truck.

Increasing consumption of school meals will be necessary to the success of the farm-to-school movement, Tanaka said, and to get there he emphasized the importance of school gardens and kitchens as classrooms where students can learn from a young age how to grow, harvest and prepare their own food.

“What we want the kids to do is go home and say, ‘Mom, I had the greatest meal at school today,’” Tanaka said, adding that if they grow it they’re going to want to eat it.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, 85% of Hawaii’s public schools had an on-campus garden, according to event panelist Lydi Bernal, coordinator of the Hawaii Farm to School Hui.

One of the group’s charges, Bernal said, is to offer professional development to teachers of all subject areas who want to incorporate school gardens into their curriculum.

“How do you use a garden as a classroom?” Bernal said. “We know the interest is there among teachers. Among students, I personally have seen the joy that students have in learning (in the garden setting). That’s learning engagement, that’s reduced absenteeism, that’s increased academic achievement and that’s increased preference for fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s exactly what we need when we start serving more local in the cafeterias.”

“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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