Staffing shortages could stall an effort by Hawaii public schools to serve students more local food, according to a new legislative report.

Hawaii GrownThe two-page report, submitted to state lawmakers last month, provides an early look at the Hawaii Department of Education’s strategy to ramp up the percentage of locally grown ingredients in student meals to 30% by 2030, a key condition of Act 175 signed into law last July by Gov. David Ige.

But the report offers no answer for the biggest question involving the public school system’s progress toward compliance with the new legislation: How much local food is currently being served to students?

The report says the DOE doesn’t have the capacity to track this kind of data. Instead, the report lays out the department’s intent to build a database to track food purchase orders across its 257 schools so that it can analyze how far it has to go to meet the 30% threshold.

The report describes this and other objectives as “long-range actions,” noting that with limited funding and staffing shortages, the department’s plan to boost local food procurement could take longer to realize.

Ala Wai Elementary school students enjoy beefstew during lunch.
A new DOE report suggests it could be a long time before Hawaii students are served more locally grown food. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

The report appears to confirm concerns over key staffing shortages raised by advocates who say they fear a lack of investment in the School Food Services Branch could undermine the state’s big push to compel the DOE to funnel more of its $125 million food services operating budget into the local economy.

Jeremy Koki, the head of the School Food Services Branch, is a temporary hire, for example, and the farm to school coordinator position charged with actualizing Act 175 has been vacant for more than a year. Concerns have also been raised by advocates who say they are frustrated that the DOE has recently divested in programs that lead to local food purchases.

These staffing limitations set in shortly after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, local stew beef has been removed from the school lunch menu. The DOE stopped buying breadfruit, sweet potato, banana and papaya from a cooperative of more than 100 small local farms. And the department suspended its Harvest of the Month program that had spotlighted Hawaii-grown ingredients in menu items like kalo bowls, purple sweet potato pie and sweet and sour pineapple pork.

Advocates have said they’re frustrated that the DOE has recently divested in programs that lead to local food purchases and worry that this regression in local food initiatives over the last two years could be difficult to rebound from.

Lydi Bernal, coordinator of the Hawaii Farm to School Hui, called on the DOE to immediately hire to fill a pair of farm-to-school coordinator positions that have been vacant since August 2020.

She also urged the department to build on pre-pandemic progress toward boosting the portion of locally sourced food on students’ plates.

“Communities need to be involved with the development of a formal, department-wide plan for implementation of the Hawaii Farm to School Program,” she said in a prepared statement. “(The DOE) should do more to ensure proper planning and success of school efforts and many partners stand by to support.”

Although scant on details, the legislative report prepared by the School Food Services Branch pledges to boost procurement of local ingredients by collaborating with key stakeholders — the Department of Agriculture, the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, food hubs, food distributors and farmers — to create new menus that incorporate more local products into school meals.

Cafeteria staff would be trained to prepare the new menus, which are expected to require more scratch cooking and updated kitchen equipment, according to the report. To reduce costs to renovate old facilities, the School Food Services Branch intends to establish regional kitchens to service clusters of nearby schools.

Although 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, the centralized kitchen model outlined in the report would improve quality management and increase the use of local farm products, according to the report.

The report notes that centralized kitchens are used to achieve efficiencies by school systems across the country.

Still, some advocates of serving students more local food say they want to see cafeterias in every school.

In an interview last month state Rep. Amy Perruso said centralized kitchens would “create processed food out of our local food and then distribute that to each of the schools,” adding that she “couldn’t be more at odds with that approach.”

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.

“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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