Farmers and ranchers see an opportunity for ongoing collaboration.

House lawmakers are grilling the Department of Education for substantive detail on its plans for the school food system.

Senate and House lawmakers introduced concurrent resolutions this session requesting more information from DOE, particularly on how a proposed $35 million centralized kitchen in Wahiawa will help the department reach the target of 30% local food spending by 2030, as mandated in Acts 175 and 176 of 2021

The DOE says the Wahiawa model would eventually be replicated on other islands and deliver meals for the entire state.

This beef laulau plate, served with local sweet potatoes and lomi tomato, was one of the meals served in Kohala Complex schools that participated in the Aina Pono farm to school pilot program. (Courtesy: Office of the Lt. Governor/Farm to School Initiative)

The absence so far of a detailed strategy from DOE has also encouraged farm to school advocates to point to the unsung success of the Aina Pono pilot program, which ran from 2016 until 2018.

That pilot indicated the DOE’s food service issues could be addressed using local kitchens, using locally sourced produce.

The DOE has dismissed that idea, arguing the central kitchen is the most viable and cited numbers that advocates and lawmakers have taken issue with, including a cost estimate for refurbishing the state’s large network of school kitchens at $10 million, each, or about $2.5 billion in total.

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Rep. Amy Perruso, who was behind a suite of failed House bills that would have focused on upgrading current infrastructure, says her office sought clarification on those numbers from DOE weeks ago but has yet to receive a response. 

At a House hearing last week, DOE Office of Facilities and Operations Assistant Superintendent Randall Tanaka told lawmakers that most of the details they requested in their resolution were already “framed up,” and on Monday he told Senate lawmakers that he “fully intends” to share his plan soon, even though there was more research required on sourcing supplies. 

Rep. Kirstin Kahaloa, right, is leading the call for the Department of Education to share its plan on how it will reach its local food buying goals. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Rep. Kirsten Kahaloa, hopes to broker a better relationship with DOE through a House resolution asking for a strategic plan, especially now that the $35 million kitchen seems a foregone conclusion.

Kahaloa says there’s simply not enough information to satisfy the public that local food goals will be reached.

“From 6% to 30% in less than seven years is quite a a feat,” Kahaloa said in an interview.

Kahaloa says she hopes her resolution would be seen as an olive branch, rather than legislation that DOE might perceive as a “micromanagement tool.”

Bringing everyone together – farmers, advocates and DOE – is paramount, Kahaloa says.

Could Local Kitchens Be Fixed?

The Aina Pono program, launched in late 2016 by then-Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, was implemented to test whether local food acquisition by schools was actually possible.

The outcomes of the trial have fueled advocates’ doubts over whether a centralized kitchen model will effectively feed children and meet nutrition goals.

The program brought in consultants Beyond Green Partners to take over several DOE kitchens and tackle everything from food waste to overspending and overproduction.

The final report showed that in two school complex areas, Kohala and Mililani, six school kitchens reduced their spending while increasing their quotient of local food, fresh food consumption and student participation in meals.

There were also signs the program would be eventually break even financially. 

But it was not all smooth sailing, according to Beyond Green Partners founder Greg Christian, as a couple of schools opted out after he said DOE school food staff failed to buy into the program’s objectives. 

Christian says there are also risks associated with centralized kitchens, pointing to problems in districts that have already adopted them.

Another Kohala Complex area school meal consists of Kailua pig with cabbage, served with a side of local poi, pineapples and sweet potato. (Courtesy: Office of the Lt. Governor/Farm to School Initiative)

California’s Fresno Unified School Board’s mega kitchen is currently facing backlash from parents, who are calling for meal preparation to be returned to local kitchens after students had been tossing meals in the trash that were still frozen or only partially warmed. 

Nailing the right recipe of healthy, local and tasty food for students requires complex considerations for Hawaii – both in cooking and acquisition – one that requires an understanding of not just children’s palates but also the farmers that will eventually supply the schools, Christian said.  

“Knowing how to do that? There’s only a handful of people in this country that can pull it off,” Christian said. ”Maybe some people tell you they can do that, but it’s a complex puzzle, especially with real food.”

Notwithstanding the frayed relationship between DOE and the farm to school community, Sen. Tim Richards says a plan must be presented, and soon.  

The senator and Big Island rancher, who introduced the Senate’s accompanying resolution, wants an indication of what the DOE’s demand might be for its menus in coming years, so farmers and ranchers can plan accordingly. 

“The problem in agriculture is you can’t say ‘I want this tomorrow so I’ll plant it today’,” Richards said in an interview. “What you want is a road map so ag can plan going forward.”

Sen. Tim Richards, a Waimea rancher and veterinarian, wants to embrace the collaboration. (Courtesy: Ann Ferguson)

Daniela Spoto of Hawaii Appleseed says the lack of clarity and strategic planning does not bode well for the rollout of the centralized model, because school food programs require collaboration between DOE, staff, advocates and students.

“We’re not at odds with (DOE’s) plan, it just feels incomplete,” Spoto said in an interview. “Everybody is frustrated.”

Richards says there needs to be a strategy in place so farmers can plan to meet the demand DOE claims the agricultural industry cannot currently satisfy. 

So whether or not the House resolution sticks, Richards has resolved to continue working on the issue, even after session ends, to ensure at least a flexible strategy comes from the DOE.

“You think I’m going to let this go?” Richards said.

Click here to view the 2018 ‘Aina Pono Hawai‘i State Farm To School Report.

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