The DOE has also failed to deliver a required annual update to state lawmakers on progress so far.

The Department of Education has blown past the deadline for a report intended to detail progress toward its mandated goal to buy more local food, delivering mixed messages to lawmakers about its progress in the meantime.

From what education officials have revealed so far, the DOE will need to execute a five-fold spending increase by the end of the decade to spend 30% of its food budget locally by 2030.

DOE Deputy Superintendent Curt Otaguro told lawmakers at a recent hearing that locally sourced food products accounted for 6.14% of the DOE’s spending last year, “a little backwards” from its 6.2% in 2022.

But that number is not final because the DOE has yet to deliver its report which, in addition to the prospect of lapsing funds for a centralized kitchen that the department has banked on, is raising concerns that it will be hard pressed to reach the goals set out in the 2021 law.

Waimea Middle School cafeteria food lunch.
The DOE will need to spend five times more of its food budget locally by 2030 to reach its mandated goal. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Lawmakers passed the bill three years ago with the goal of galvanizing Hawaii’s food system while providing students with more nourishing food.

Rep. Amy Perruso, who sits on the House Education Committee, has repeatedly asked about the report’s whereabouts since mid-January.

Otaguro told lawmakers on Jan. 16 that he believed the report, which was due Dec. 28, had been handed in. On Jan. 30, he doubled down when he said it was submitted but was “a bit late.”

House of Representatives education committee member Amy Perruso questions Hawaii Realtors director of advocacy Lyndsey Garcia about their opposition to HB 1537 on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, in Honolulu. HB 1537 proposes amendments to articles VII and X of the Constitution to authorize legislation to establish a tax of residential investment property to increase funding for public education. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)
Rep. Amy Perruso, who sits on the House Education Committee, has raised concerns over the DOE’s progress. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)

On Tuesday — 41 days past deadline — DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said in an email that the report was still under final review and “will be posted ASAP.” She said it was delayed by changes in key staff and by changes in how the DOE measures and reports its spending on local food.

Then on Wednesday, in another email, the DOE said the “overall percentage of local food had remained steady, perhaps even higher,” given all 1% milk served on the Big Island came from a local source.

Perruso said she understood that staffing was an issue, but also suspected that DOE was “stalling so that we are not able to discuss the data during session.”

Still, she said, “the fact we are not making progress on this should raise alarms.”

Progress Delayed

Changes need to be made on a systematic level to see that percentage lift significantly, according to Dennis Chase, Hawaii Farm to School Hui coordinator. 

“I don’t know if I ever expected them to go from 6.2 to 7.5% because the system is so constricted,” Chase said.  

Community farm-to-school advocates have chastised the department’s slow implementation and lacking community engagement since 2021.

Among the criticisms has been a lack of clear planning on the DOE’s behalf, which former Assistant Superintendent Randall Tanaka — who headed up the food branch — acknowledged last year.

“I don’t have a plan. What I have is a road map: This is where we are, this is where we need to be,” Tanaka said at the time.

The DOE instead banked on the construction of a 30,000-square-foot centralized, Zippy’s-style kitchen in Wahiawa to buy more local food, intended to sit among Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz’s Central Oahu Agriculture and Food Hub, for which Gov. Josh Green released $35 million last year. 

The facility is intended to act as a blueprint for similar kitchens across Hawaii.

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

But Tanaka was fired in December amid a funding controversy over the DOE’s plans to relinquish $465 million in funding for capital improvement projects.

The $35 million for the kitchen was on that list, though the DOE is still canvasing interest and seeking proposals for the kitchen’s build and design with a May 1 deadline.

The budget for the kitchen has been winnowed to $28 million and its footprint has been reduced by one-third.

The DOE’s $465 million in CIP funding will expire on June 30.

The department recently hired a farm-to-school coordinator last year, more than two years after Act 175 was signed into law, and also revealed to local farmers just what its level of local food demand might look like. 

Dole Agricultural Land Whitmore Village.
The Central Oahu Agriculture and Food Hub, formerly known as the Whitmore Community Food Hub, is slated to host a centralized kitchen to prepare school meals for the entire island of Oahu. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

That would then mean farmers’ would have greater security, having DOE as an assured customer before they even plant their crops.

Rep. Kirstin Kahaloa has introduced a handful of farm to school bills this year, predominantly housekeeping measures, including one bill aimed at lifting procurement hurdles for the DOE to purchase local food from local farmers.

The Kona representative was hopeful that the newly appointed coordinator, Weston Yap, would reveal further plans going forward — something she requested last year — to increase the department’s local food tab incrementally to reach 30% by 2030. 

The other islands also need a tangible plan moving forward, according to Kahaloa, because Oahu was not going to get the DOE to its 30% goal alone.

“If we only focus on the central kitchen on Oahu we’re not going to make our benchmarks,” Kahaloa 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.

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