Local lettuce will augment the short list of Hawaii-grown food products incorporated into student meals across the state’s 257 public schools next year.
As the state pursues school lunch as a vehicle to support local agriculture, local beef, tomato, papaya and green onions will continue to be featured in student meals, along with local cucumbers on Oahu and local bananas on the Big Island.
The rest of what appears on student breakfast and lunch trays largely consists of processed mainland imports.
The addition of lettuce marks the first tangible step forward for the farm-to-school movement since the pandemic dismantled some of the progress made toward feeding students more food from Hawaii producers.
Lydi Bernal, coordinator of the Hawaii Farm to School Hui, acknowledged the addition as progress but called on the DOE to do more to boost the portion of locally sourced food on students’ plates.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is missed opportunity,” she said. “Every time the DOE prepares menus for the next school year it’s an opportunity to move toward our goal.”
Additionally, school dietitians have modified recipes to reduce sodium and cut down on cheese to reduce saturated fats to meet new federal nutritional standards, according to Lindsay Rodrigues, the DOE’s School Food Services Branch administrator.
Next year sodium will be reduced by about 7% in meals for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and by about 10% for high school students, according to Rodrigues. Saturated fats will be reduced by about 11% for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and by about 4% for high school students.
DOE spokesman Derek Inoshita declined to make someone from the School Food Services Branch available for an interview.
With a $120 million operating budget, the DOE’s School Food Services Branch annually purchases about $45 million worth of food. How much of that budget is currently being used to buy local food, however, remains a mystery as the DOE says it doesn’t yet have the capacity to track how much local food ends up on students’ plates.
“The schools are the biggest restaurant in the state,” said Hawaii Farm Bureau Executive Director Brian Miyamoto. “We don’t grow apples in Hawaii but there are alternatives like papaya. There are creative ways to serve students more of what we grow.”
Last year state legislators enacted a new law that requires state agencies to gradually boost locally grown foods in student meals to 30% by 2030. And this week, lawmakers passed House Bill 1568, which narrows the focus of that legislation to the biggest buyers of local food, with the biggest being the Department of Education.
Rep. Scot Matayoshi, who introduced the bill, said it’s designed to “get the most bang for our buck,” without unnecessarily burdening small agencies.
“Some departments are so small they only purchase a handful of produce,” he said.
He characterized the coming debut of local lettuce on the school lunch menu as a “step in the right direction,” and in line with his view of how the farm-to-school movement might flourish.
“Having them incrementally increase the local content of school meals is exactly how I envisioned the DOE tackling this in the first place,” Matayoshi said. “Now the DOE will need to continue to make increases.”
Daniela Spoto, director of anti-hunger initiatives at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said she’s happy to see progress amid chronic key staffing shortages at the DOE’s School Food Services Branch. A pair of farm-to-school coordinator positions responsible for ramping up the amount of local ingredients in student meals, for example, have been vacant since August 2020.
“Of course we’d always love to see more (local food on the menu) but the fact that they’re keeping existing contracts that utilize local ingredients and adding on leafy greens is a good thing,” Spoto said.
Staffing limitations set in shortly after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, local stew beef has been removed from the school lunch menu. The DOE stopped buying breadfruit, sweet potato, banana and papaya from a cooperative of more than 100 small local farms. And the department suspended its Harvest of the Month program that had spotlighted Hawaii-grown ingredients in menu items like kalo bowls, purple sweet potato pie and sweet and sour pineapple pork.
Advocates like Bernal worry that this regression in local food initiatives over the last two years could be difficult to rebound from.
Bernal said she is also concerned that the department is neglecting to build on pre-pandemic progress toward boosting the portion of locally sourced food on students’ plates.
“Like many other projects,” Bernal said, “farm-to-school food improvements have suffered from administrative turnover in the DOE where we essentially start from scratch or completely neglect to build on what’s already been done over years and years.”
To move forward on the department’s sustainable food goals, advocates say a series of fundamental questions need to be answered.
For instance, how much local food is currently being served to students? What local food products does the DOE need, and in what quantities? What price point can it offer farmers?
Miyamoto said there’s interest from farmers who would be willing to pivot their crop production to help meet the needs of the state’s school cafeterias. But this interest won’t translate into action without more publicly available information, as well as the availability of long-term contracts, which he said are essential to offering farmers the assurance they need to grow or alter their business model to meet the demands of Hawaii’s schools.
“I’m sure they have a list of what they need but we’re trying to get that list broadcast, connecting the dots so we can say, ‘Hey, farmers, this is what they need and this is the price point they are looking for,’” Miyamoto said. “Because then the farmer can say, ‘I can grow that but I can’t meet that price’ or ‘absolutely, sign me up.’”
For three years, the Hawaii Ulu Cooperative supplied the state’s public schools with tens of thousands of pounds of breadfruit, sweet potato, banana and papaya.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and student meals changed to rely more heavily on mainland imports. And the ulu co-op, which had been selling approximately 60,000 pounds of food a year to the DOE and started growing some new crops specifically for the department, saw its business with the public school system plummet to zero.
Dana Shapiro, general manager of the ulu co-op, said after about a half dozen meetings with the DOE, school administrators decided against reincorporating the co-op’s products into student meals next school year.
“We diversified in partnership with the DOE to start growing all of our co-crops – banana, papaya and sweet potato — in addition to processing ulu,” Shapiro said. “We’ve found other buyers for most of the products they used to buy, not all of them. So we’ve just done what ag businesses do and adapted.”
This is the kind of scenario that long-term purchasing agreements could help protect farmers against, Miyamoto said.
“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.
Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.