Leeward Community College is aiming to make its newest facility, the Wahiawa Value-Added Product Development Center, a hub for local food innovation that will embolden young people to try their hand at food entrepreneurship. 

LCC is in the early stages of partnering with nearby Leilehua High School and Mililani High School to form a pipeline for students in the schools’ agricultural and culinary tracks.  

The 33,327-square-foot facility won’t open until summer, but LCC is starting a program in January designed to help students and entrepreneurs create value-added items like pickles and sauces from local agricultural products, and bring them to market. 

The new $16 million Wahiawa Value-Added Product Development Center is slated for completion by summer 2023. Viola Gaskell/Civil Beat/2022

The finished facility will house a hyperbaric high-pressure processing machine — the first in the state — which can be used to extend the shelf life of foods, from meat and vegetables to ready-to-eat products. 

“All of a sudden you can take the shelf life of a product from three days to three weeks and that becomes more attractive to bring into your chain of 20 stores across the islands,” said program director Chris Bailey. 

Originally a Tamura’s warehouse, the rear of the building is edged with loading docks where produce can be received, washed and processed, and where finished products can be packed for shipment or delivery. Signature food-industry white tiles cover swathes of wall-space surrounding industrial stainless steel stoves and hoods in each of the four kitchens. The upper floor of the center will contain meeting spaces where students and entrepreneurs can have business meetings and host events.

The facility is part of a broader plan, spearheaded by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, to revitalize Wahiawa. Once a thriving plantation town, Wahiawa fell on hard times after the pineapple industry moved overseas in the 1980s. Today, 43% of Wahiawa residents float just above the poverty line, where they do not qualify for many government assistance programs, but often cannot afford basic necessities, according to the Aloha United Way’s ALICE report

In the last 10 years, Dela Cruz has procured around $400 million for new developments for the district, including the Whitmore Project, a farming support plan and ag-tech park that helps farmers procure affordable land leases and workforce housing. The state has bought more than 3,000 acres of farmland in the area, previously owned by Dole and the Galbraith Estate, that is now being leased to local farmers.   

The overall goal is to increase local food production while creating a host of opportunities for residents. 

“Who knows, maybe one day some of these students will be as big as Big Island Candies,” Dela Cruz said. 

Senator Donovan Dela Cruz.
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz at Ho Farms in Wahiawa. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Aligning Farmers And Students Through Food Innovation

Leilehua already has a robust agriculture program, largely thanks to teacher Jackie Freitas, who grew the program from an initial 67 students to around 200 who now work the fields. 

In addition to traditional farming tasks, Leilehua’s ag students build vertical farming towers, experiment with hydroponics and dabble in animal husbandry. Soon they’ll be using farm bots. 

Freitas’ students are already making basic value-added products, including mamaki tea, jellies, and chili pepper water, in the certified kitchen on the farm. 

Jackie Freitas took over Leilehua High School’s ag program 13 years ago. Courtesy of Jackie Freitas

Students in the program will be able to partner with local farmers to put less attractive — but perfectly good — produce to use in new agricultural products.

For some farms, less attractive produce known as “number twos” and off-grades, make up 15 to 30% of any given harvest. Demand for these off-grade products has increased due to inflation, but a large portion of them often go to waste or are plowed back into fields.

At Kahuku Farms, a 100-year-old family farm on Oahu’s North Shore, owner Kylie Matsuda already puts off-grades to use at her family’s farm cafe in products like lilikoi balsamic dressing and lilikoi butter and hopes to make make larger batches with extended shelf-life. She’d also be open to new product ideas from students that utilize this grade of produce. 

This year, food entrepreneur and local farming advocate Poni Askew, founder of Street Grindz and Cultivate Hawaii, started a three-day value-added camp for middle school students from Wahiawa. 

During both camps, in spring and fall, kids spent three days at Leilehua High School — harvesting in the fields with Freitas, prepping in the kitchen with culinary arts teacher Brandon Hanagami — then developing a pitch with the school’s business teacher, Brandon Kon. 

At the end of the fall camp, Askew said nearly half of the students wanted to enter the agriculture career pathway when they started high school at Leilehua. 

She said that it makes a tremendous amount of sense to have a product development and food manufacturing offering within Hawaii’s college system. 

“It’s about how we help to foster success in that world for anybody who wants to do it,” she said. 

The Allure Of Ag-Tech

Ag students at Leilehua High School harvest lettuce from their hydroponic setup on campus. Photo: Courtesy of Jackie Freitas

Hawaii’s farmers are aging — about 40% of them are over the age of 65 — and for years, they’ve have had a hard time recruiting young people to work their fields. But some, like Hilo hydroponic farmer Raymond Kawamata, whose entire high-tech operation is indoors, have experienced no such shortage.

LCC Chancellor Carlos Penaloza says that incorporating tech into farming and local food production makes the industry more appealing to Hawaii’s next generation of farm workers.

“The concept of controlling irrigation from an app on your phone is a big deal. Our students are no longer going to see themselves carrying water into the fields, hoping that it’s not a hot day,” he said. 

Mililani High School ag teacher Matt Calica has seen a major shift in his students in recent years. Five years ago, the kids who walked into his class were there because they hadn’t picked an elective — now they walk in the door asking what they can do about climate change. 

“They hear in the news about how reliant we are on food from the mainland, and they understand how serious this is,” he said. 

Although his students want to be involved in changing Hawaii’s reliance on imported food, he points to a broader set of opportunities in agriculture. 

“I try to open their eyes to see that agriculture is not just farming. You could get into environmental engineering or marketing, you could be a tractor technician or run IT for a farm — there are different avenues you can take,” Calica said. 

Luckily, Calica says that in his class there are still a handful of kids who enjoy nothing more than going into the fields and digging up weeds.

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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