Hawaii is leading the nation in the effort to serve farm-fresh food in school lunches, according to research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Farm to School Network.

And though those organizations have been dishing out kudos to Hawaii lawmakers in the new report, those integral in the effort are more focused on how they want to grow the program.

USDA and National Farm to School Network recently released the State Farm to School Policy Handbook 2002-2018, which looks at trends in the farm-to-school realm.

“(Hawaii) lawmakers are doing it right, supporting healthy kids, family farms and strong local economies, having fought hard to get Farm to School programming into our school systems,” said spokesperson Taryn Hennebicque.

“They recognize the many benefits that local food in school meals, school gardens and food and agriculture education provide to our communities,” she said.

“The state is a model for collaboration efforts and implementation, from cultivating strong administrative champions to developing a program to move from processed to scratch-cooked, traditional meals with foods from local suppliers into schools,” said Hennebicque.

But, the vision is much bigger than farm-to-school, said state Senate President Ronald Kouchi of Lihue, who has been championing farm-to-school legislation for several years.

“We’ve moved the focus from farm-to-school to farm-to-state,” Kouchi said Friday, pointing out Kauai is embracing the movement wholeheartedly.

The movement toward farm-to-school foods actually started in state hospitals, lawmakers say, with programs at Kauai Veterans Memorial Hospital and Samuel Mahelona Memorial Hospital upgrading employee lunches with fresh food.

After some research, the effort expanded into schools and to prisons within the state, where officials are working together to bring in locally sourced, farm-fresh food for meals.

“What we found was there’s a lot of processed food served, not much from scratch, and there was significant waste,” Kouchi said.

The goal is to turn that around — to serve local, fresh food in state institutions, to teach local population how to prepare local, fresh meals, and to eliminate food waste.

Students, prisoners and hospital employees aren’t the only ones who’ll be benefiting from the farm-to-state programs — Kauai lawmakers like state Rep. Jimmy Tokioka say it could be a “game changer” for local agriculture.

For instance, last year the state Department of Education put out a contract for one million pounds of beef, and half of it was supplied by Hawaii ranchers.

Kouchi says those local, Hawaii ranchers are confident they could meet the demand for one million pounds of beef as soon as some of the kinks are worked out of the paperwork process.

Kouchi also cited another partnership in progress between the state and a Hawaii papaya farmer who puts his lower-grade papayas to use.

In working with the farmer, officials saw about 35% of his crop was going to waste because it wasn’t fit for sale on store shelves. About half of that bruised or less-beautiful fruit could still be used for cooking, and officials with the state are working on integrating that into lunches within the prison system.

“That helps his bottom line and eliminates waste,” Kouchi said. “We’re making great strides and getting to where we want to be.”

The concept has been particularly successful on Kauai, and lawmakers attribute that to the community mindset and to flexibility on the part of employees within the DOE on Kauai.

“It has to be in chewable bites to move forward and help people to embrace change,” Kouchi said.

Supplying 100% local ingredients for lunches in hospitals, schools and prisons is an admirable goal, but lawmakers point out that without a local dairy or poultry source, that goal is a bit out of reach.

They’re initially aiming at 40% local ingredients in those meals, with the potential of rising to 60%.

Other Kauai lawmakers have been involved in the movement, including state Reps. Nadine Nakamura and Dee Morikawa, who both have a history of supporting the state’s farm-to-school initiatives and programs.

“We support local farmers by purchasing their products, cafeteria workers who are creating delicious meals and youth who are eating fresh foods grown in the community,” Nakamura said.

Written for The Garden Island Newspaper. Published Sunday October 20,2019. Photos by Jessica Else. 

Published by jessicaelse

Jessica Else is an award-winning journalist and author, currently living in the Pacific Northwest. While she's dabbled in many subjects during her writing career, Jess enjoys writing about agriculture and sustainability projects, endangered animals, health and wellness, festivals and food, and outdoor adventuring.

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