The culinary arts department at Kapiolani Community College turned to squash and lilikoi vines to camouflage their plants from would-be thieves.

University of Hawaii Student Stories project badgeSince September, reports of stolen plants at the Diamond Head community college have been rising. Faculty members believe poachers have been running off with greenery ranging from succulents to Native Hawaiian plants. Students and faculty are trying new methods to deter theft, including more vegetation.

“Our greatest problem is theft,” said Grant Sato, a KCC culinary arts instructor who manages the garden. “We’ve noticed that, with this overgrowth, which we’ve only let go recently, the amount of theft has reduced tremendously.”

Brian Furuto, vice chancellor of administrative services at KCC, who also oversees security, confirmed that he has received some reports of plant theft. He said that his security staff and contractors prioritize protecting people and facilities.

Sato and others suspect a large portion of the theft is occurring during the KCC Farmers Market — which is held every Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. in parking Lot B — located on the campus’s lower wing.

To curb the theft, administrators initially tried traditional security tactics, like installing cameras and signage, Sato said. However, thieves kept approaching the garden, grabbing plants and running away.

The culinary department started using the “overgrown method” as a tactic to deter theft starting in September. Alyssa Rodello/Civil Beat/2022

“It’s so disheartening,” he said. “Our students — pre-pandemic, of course — were putting so much effort into planting and maintaining the garden only to have their products disappear over the weekends.”

The Culinary Arts Edible Garden, created by Chef David Brown and supported by volunteer work and donations, has been around for about 12 years. The garden’s purpose is to be a hands-on resource for students to learn about the cultivation of the ingredients they use, while also serving as a tool to teach sustainability and entrepreneurship.

After Brown’s retirement in spring 2020 — a month before the pandemic shutdown — Sato took over responsibilities for the plot. This was a rough period for the garden, he said, because it was left unattended for a few months.

In the summer of 2020, with the help of student volunteers, the program began a “full overhaul” of the garden. The faculty and students brought in a variety of plants, including variegated Ti leaf and Song of India.

After eight plants Sato personally bought were stolen during a 3-month period, he gave up re-supplying the garden.

In September, faculty members at the culinary department decided to try the “overgrowth method” — a last resort to keep thieves and pests away from their plants.

“We decided to stop the efforts to ‘manicure’ the perimeter to deter entry to the garden,” Sato wrote in an email. “The overgrowth and weeds also helps to keep the bugs away from the good plants.”

The KCC culinary arts department continues to harvest plants that students can use in their lessons. Alyssa Rodello/Civil Beat/2022

He added that the culinary garden is organic and does not use pesticides or chemicals.

The culinary department added deer netting, squash and lilikoi vines to the fence. The lilikoi have even been used to make pastries by the culinary students.

Sato is optimistic that the interest from an endowment at the UH Foundation will help support the garden in the future. The culinary department will receive interest from the endowment every year to maintain the garden.

He added that a separate, private donation will be used to purchase fencing material by summer — the current fence is splintered and in disrepair — and said the infrastructure should be completed sometime in the fall.

Sato declined to put a dollar value on the endowment and donation because lawyers are still reviewing the endowment.

“The students will learn about how the plant reproduces, what is the best time to harvest, how to harvest and replant, and how the indigenous people ate the plants,” Sato said. Now, “they can do this with less worry about theft.”

–Nathan Bek contributed reporting for this story.

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