Local food producers and advocates are vexed by the department’s U-turn.

The Department of Education is telling schools not to apply for a slice of $500,000 in federal funding that would help them buy local food – an initiative the DOE helped apply for.

Hawaii’s complex area superintendents received an email on Wednesday warning them that if their schools signed on to the program they would become “out of compliance” with the DOE’s School Food Services Branch.

The DOE directive represents an about-face, as the department signed off on the application for federal funding last year under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Local Food for Schools Cooperative Agreement program.

DOE Office of Facilities and Operations Assistant Superintendent Randy Tanaka, pictured in 2019, sent an email telling schools to not take part in a program that would help them buy more local food. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2019)

USDA allocated $646,962 to Hawaii which, in a January press release, Superintendent Keith Hayashi said would help the DOE “progress tremendously” towards its state-mandated goals of sourcing 50% of its food locally by 2050.

But the email, sent by Office of Facilities and Operations Assistant Superintendent Randall Tanaka, tells school to ignore any calls from the Hawaii Child Nutrition Program – which is administering the program – asking them to apply for funds.

“We have had discussions with HCNP and are not participating or have not agreed to the conditions set forth in the agreement,” Tanaka said in the email.

The main reason, according to Tanaka’s email, is that applying for funds would take schools out of compliance with federal standards.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

But the HCNP, which received the grant, is charged with monitoring and auditing the DOE’s compliance with federal food and nutrition regulations.

Civil Beat requested an interview with Tanaka on Thursday but, on Monday, the DOE Communications Branch said he was unavailable for an interview.

Instead, in an emailed statement, Tanaka doubled down.

He again stated that the food services branch menus must meet USDA requirements and that acceptance of grant funds or new recipes must be approved by the branch and “that Hawaii Child Nutrition Program agreements are made with the Department’s School Food Services Branch … and not with individual schools.”

Just what will happen with the unused funds is unknown.

Dealing with the funds could be considered too inconvenient, potentially requiring the food services branch and cafeteria managers to take additional accounting measures to get reimbursed, according to Marlow DeRego of Hawaii School Nutrition Association.

Now-retired DeRego, who worked for 26 years with DOE food services, says it would only require a few hours of training in record keeping but nothing more.

“There should be little problem,” DeRego said in an interview. “We don’t know why they’re resisting. I truly, really, can’t understand.”

At an event April 26, students from local high schools unveiled 11 recipes using four locally-grown ingredients but a week later the DOE rejected half a million dollars to help pay for the ingredients. (Courtesy: Hawaii Team Nutrition Project)

More Money For School Meals, More Money For Farmers

Just a week before the email was sent, DOE representatives joined farm to school advocates to celebrate the formulation of almost a dozen new recipes integrating local ingredients, which were developed to be inducted into the USDA’s national school meals database.

The meals were created under a grant that was acquired by HCNP, which also applied for the grant the DOE just flipped on.

Neglecting federal funding for farm to school programs means less money for farmers and food producers, who are at the core of a 2021 law requiring 30% of the state’s school food be sourced locally by the end of the decade.

Tanaka has repeatedly told lawmakers the DOE is unable to produce enough local food to feed its students in the first place. Less than 2% of the DOE’s $45 million food budget was spent on locally grown produce in 2022.

Hawaii Ulu Cooperative co-founder and general manager Dana Shapiro says the DOE U-turn is a disappointment for suppliers who were already anticipating orders.

“We hope they will find a way to engage, so that local farmers and kids can benefit from a program which already has funding,” Shapiro said in an interview.

Dole Agricultural Land Whitmore Village.
The centralized kitchen being touted by DOE will be part of a project to develop a food hub in Central Oahu’s Whitmore Village.
(Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

Going Central

In the meantime, the DOE has forged ahead with plans for a centralized kitchen in Wahiawa that would supply food to all of Oahu’s schools.

That model would eventually be replicated on each island, which advocates fear will result in less nutritional food and be subject to supply chain issues.

A last-ditch legislative effort to keep the school food system decentralized and address several other issues died in the Senate this year, effectively clearing the path for the centralized kitchen plan to proceed.

North Shore and Central Oahu Rep. Amy Perruso who introduced that raft of bills believes DOE’s decision to reject federal funds has to do with wanting to hold the reins of school meals.

Perruso cannot be certain why turning the money has been turned down but says, “It is ridiculous. It defies logic.”

“I understand if the concerns are about implementation, that’s fine. But that’s not what it seems like,” Perruso said.

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

Support Civil Beat during the season of giving.

As a small nonprofit newsroom, our mission is powered by readers like you. But did you know that less than 1% of readers donate to Civil Beat?

Give today and support local journalism that helps to inform, empower and connect.

About the Author