Hawaii’s congressional delegation wants to know why the money it fights for is not being used by the Department of Education.

The Department of Education has blamed miscommunication as the reason it failed to use $650,000 in federal money meant to assist schools in buying local food.

DOE explained the situation in a letter it sent to Hawaii’s congressional delegation after the school system backtracked on a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant it applied for last year, raising questions among congressional lawmakers and farm to school advocates.

They fear it gives the federal government the mistaken impression that Hawaii does not need help in its drive to increase how much local food it serves.

But the $600,000 figure is just a fraction of the federal funds for school meals that the state agency has rejected, neglected to apply for or simply given back to the federal government over the past several years. 

Hundreds of thousands of dollars allocated to the Department of Education by USDA could have helped buy ingredients for these dishes, though the state agency did not follow through on its agreement.
(Photo Courtesy: Ho Farms)

In 2022 the DOE handed back just over $1.1 million in federal funds allocated under the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, a program designed to feed and educate children about their food.

The program is seen as an easy win for Hawaii’s local farm to school goals.

And over the past decade, the DOE returned $6.9 million unused under the program designed to make fresh produce available for schoolchildren.

Rep. Jill Tokuda says the DOE has a responsibility to spend all the money it’s given by the federal government, because if it doesn’t it can be interpreted as not requiring federal help.

Tokuda says that even in her decade in state government chairing the agriculture, education and money committees, she cannot recall such behavior. 

“From a very big picture standpoint, I worry about our reputation and our ability to aggressively go after future dollars,” Tokuda said in an interview.

The DOE’s consistent challenge with the program is that it requires sufficient staffing at the school level, according to DOE Communications Director Nanea Kalani.

Kalani said that notwithstanding the pandemic years, performance had improved so far this year as the DOE had spent 59% of this year’s allocation, compared to 41% at the same time last year.

“Maximizing fund usage for this program is a priority for the Department,” Kalani said in an email.

‘Tangible Solutions’

Last week Superintendent Keith Hayashi sent a letter to the congressional delegation explaining why the DOE had decided not to take part in the Local Food in Schools program that Hayashi celebrated winning earlier this year.

Hayashi said it came down to a “misunderstanding” between the Hawaii Child Nutrition Program and the School Food Services Branch which are both under the DOE umbrella, leading to recipes being developed without sufficient SFSB input.

The lack of SFSB input makes it “difficult to incorporate these new recipes into the existing meal pattern to meet federal nutrition guidelines,” the letter stated.

Hawaii Child Nutrition Program is charged with ensuring compliance with those guidelines.

Interim DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi.
Superintendent Keith Hayashi had to explain to Hawaii’s congressional delegation why his department is not using a federal grant he approved and celebrated obtaining. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

The letter also stated that while the DOE was grateful to be part of the farm to school conversation, “having different enthusiastic stakeholders can lead to challenges and misunderstandings.”

Frustration has been mounting among farm to school advocates in turn, who sent their own letter to the Hawaii delegation asking it to hold the DOE to account, to ensure it “takes advantage of all federal funding and community support available.”

The advocates’ letter, signed by 33 organizations, underlined longstanding concerns, including the problems the groups have faced in working to help schools use more local food.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

One recent example was a $40,000 grant to help Kauai’s schools buy more local food, which the DOE rejected this year.

The inability to work together effectively is apparent in the cafeterias, advocates say.

“Hawai’i continues to rank at or near the bottom of states in participation for many child nutrition programs and HIDOE has stalled or gone backwards on many initiatives intended to grow farm to school connections,” the letter stated.

The Underlying Issue

In the letter to the congressional delegation, Hayashi reaffirmed the DOE’s commitment to “improving communications with its partners and stakeholders in the local food and agricultural community.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono sees Hayashi’s letter as a reaffirmation of DOE’s commitment to its mandated goals and says she will continue to help in her role to benefit schoolchildren and the entire state.

Sen. Brian Schatz recently led the congressional delegation in championing school food after a report highlighted the DOE’s failure to update its federal school lunch reimbursement rates with the USDA, after missing out on $221 million over the past 20 years.

Rep. Jill Tokuda is raising questions about how the DOE’s behavior will affect its reputation nationally. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

That increase, beginning in July, will bring an extra $8 million annually.

At the center of the problem is the DOE’s unclear plan for a centralized kitchen for Oahu, a $35 million facility the DOE says will service all the county’s schools and be replicated on other islands.

Given how few details have been made public, Tokuda has questions about the central kitchen model.

How centralized kitchens and their supply lines might cope as climate change drives more extreme and erratic weather events remains Tokuda’s main concern.

“We are dealing with so much in this day and age with weather, many communities are finding themselves cut off,” Tokuda said. “In many cases, those school kitchens are lifelines.”

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

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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