Food For Thought: Hawai‘i’s Public School Lunches Are Changing in a Big Way
There is something cooking in Hawai‘i’s public schools, and that’s unusual. After years of many students getting heat-and-eat dishes, local ingredients are making their way into school cafeterias.
These dishes sound like they came off the menus of local neighborhood restaurants. Instead, they’re winning students’ hearts (and stomachs) at Mililani High School, thanks to an ambitious initiative called the ‘Aina Pono: Farm to School Program.
It all began quietly several years ago when folks in the lieutenant governor’s office and the Department of Education began asking a key question about our state’s self-sustainable future: Is it possible to add more locally grown food to school meals? Working with the Department of Agriculture, the first test program began at the Kohala Center on the Big Island in 2016, serving local ingredients to all Kohala schools. Next, the DOE looked to O‘ahu, starting at Mililani High School.
“Our principal, Fred Murphy, really went to bat for us to have ‘Aina Pono in our school,” says Mililani’s vice principal, Andrea Moore. “He felt really strongly about its goal and how it could benefit our students. We’re also a larger school, [serving] two elementary schools as well as the high school, so that made us a good choice for the pilot program on O‘ahu.”
Chicken stir fry made from scratch with fresh carrots, zucchini, onions, green peppers and minced garlic served at Mililani High School. The roll is baked fresh every day and the banana is locally sourced.
Changing More Than Menus
In the beginning of 2018, Mililani High cafeteria manager Debora Kam and her staff worked closely with ‘Aina Pono’s culinary consultant Greg Christian, the president and founder of Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners. They soon realized that changes needed to take place not only in their cooking, but in the way they ran the cafeteria.
“It was hard at first,” says Kam, who has been at Mililani High for six years. “We were all used to simply unpacking or unwrapping processed foods like breaded chicken patties or nuggets, working in different stages by ourselves. With ‘Aina Pono, everyone had to come together and collaborate to cut fruits or cook meals. It required all of our staff to work as a team and communicate with one another.”
Christian provided methods of tracking waste and asked students to sample dishes and provide feedback. Soon, kids were getting chicken adobo, meatloaf, kālua pig, orange chicken and beef stew. “We make our own chicken burgers and even our own kim chee,” says Kam.
It was a success: The number of students eating cafeteria meals nearly doubled. “We actually saved money through cooking from scratch, because more students were eating and not throwing away their food,” Kam says.
“It’s just like going back to the old days,” she adds. “We have many mothers in our cafeteria staff, and if you love the kids, cooking from scratch and featuring local ingredients is what we have to do. We do it for our kids because we know that this way of cooking is healthier.”
Looking for Farmers
Soon, the program was expanding to other campuses. The Harvest of the Month initiative introduces a new ingredient every month during the school year. Other cafeterias began embracing locally grown beef, banana, papaya, ‘ulu and pineapple. More than 90 percent of public schools statewide are now participating. That posed another problem.
“The challenge with this initiative is finding a product with enough quantity,” says Dexter Kishida, Farm to School program specialist. “We need to use anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of an ingredient, so we have to see what’s available and then figure out a good, creative and feasible way to serve it.”
Take bananas for example. In January 2018, 34,000 pounds of fresh bananas from Sugarland Growers Inc., ‘Ohana Banana Farms and other farms were turned into banana pies and banana crumbles. In November, public schools were served Okinawan sweet potato pie, based on a cafeteria manager’s 103-year-old grandmother’s recipe. In March, instead of serving poi with kālua pork, Kishida and his team decided to create a breakfast kalo bowl, layering kalo chunks with poi, yogurt, granola and fruit. Kishida also envisions eventually using farm-raised tilapia, which is readily available in Hawai‘i but has a stigma with local kids. “[Kids in Hawai‘i] aren’t quite used to eating tilapia in general, so we’re trying to come up with a way to serve it,” he says.
The DOE continues to work with local producers to find different ingredients. “We want feedback from farmers as well—are there any products that Hawai‘i can grow that can replace crops like carrots and celery, which every school uses?” Kishida says. “We also want to openly discuss contract terms. We do need a formal process to buy the produce.”
‘Aina Pono on the Move
Kishida has an ambitious plan for this year. In addition to teaching cafeteria staff, managers and bakers everything from cooking techniques to kitchen basics, he wants to use information to reduce waste.
“One thing we want to step up is data gathering,” he says. “We want to teach our staff how to gather data, run an audit and see how much food was thrown away. We’re also working with the curriculum department of the school to align what’s being taught to what’s being served.”
He also has a plan for a food truck to serve those in need on the West Side all year. “During the summer, we feed only a quarter of our students that we normally do, so we want to look to taking the cafeteria to people who may need it—places like the homeless encampments as well as beaches and parks.”
Despite the challenges, the results have been clear: the kids love the food. “Some people thought maybe our keiki wouldn’t touch this stuff because they’re used to fast food or more processed food,” says Kishida. “Instead, it looks like home-cooked meals resonate with them.”