Images by John Hook

Written in red dry-erase marker is the menu: braised beef with brown gravy, whipped potatoes, garden greens, orange wedges, biscuit. It sounds like any other school lunch, but unlike the pre-packaged, frozen entrées that sometimes travel thousands of miles to reach Hawai‘i’s nearly 400 schools, most of this meal at Laupāhoehoe Community Public Charter School on Big Island has been sourced locally. The green bell peppers are from Sugarland Growers on O‘ahu, 211 miles away; the beef, from Kukaiau Ranch in Pa‘auilo, just up the road; and the kale and Swiss chard from right on school grounds, plucked from a 600-square-foot garden at the top of the hill.

This particular meal is one of Laupāhoehoe’s monthly farm-to-school lunches, wherein at least 25 percent of the items on the tray have been sourced from area farms. Like many towns, Laupāhoehoe owes its existence to farming. What began as a small fishing village morphed into a plantation town in the late 1800s, settled by migrant workers who harvested sugarcane in fields perched high above the sea cliffs. Today, the area is still dotted with farms, and getting nearby fruits and vegetables into local schools has been a goal of the Farm to School and School Garden Hui since its formation in 2010.

The hui, a group of educators and activists, use gardens and farm field trips to educate students about land stewardship, nutrition, and self-reliance, specifically teaching them that food comes not from grocery stores but from the land and the sea. Farm-fresh meals are also viewed as nutritionally richer, as well as being boosters against the decline of food production on the islands, which could threaten the food security of a state that imports nearly 90 percent of what it eats.

In July 2015, these tenets became law when Governor David Ige signed legislation formalizing a statewide farm-to-school program within the Department of Agriculture, an undertaking aimed to improve student health, increase local foods in public schools, and strengthen the relationship between Hawai‘i’s schools and its agricultural communities. The legislation also provided funds for a full-time farm-to-school coordinator position, which was filled by horse-trainer-turned-lawyer Robyn Pfahl, who had moved from Montana to Hawai‘i in 2009.

It was a historic victory for the hui, and it catapulted Hawai‘i into the national spotlight. Natalie McKinney, who serves as Hawai‘i’s representative to the national farm-to-school network and is also the executive director of the Kokua Foundation—which has run its farm-focused ‘Aina in Schools program on O‘ahu since 2006—says fewer than half of the states in the nation have funded a full-time coordinator at the state level. “It’s been really exciting to be able to report back all the amazing things that are happening in Hawai‘i to the national audience,” she says. “Everyone is really looking to Hawai‘i because we have been able to get so far so quickly.”

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Upon first glance, lunch at Moloka‘i High School looks remarkably similar to that at Laupāhoehoe. Same compartmentalized tray. Same Meadow Gold milk. Same half-moon-shaped oranges. Upon closer inspection, however, the Moloka‘i meal looks somewhat anemic. The chicken tenders could well be plastic props, and the “garden greens” advertised on the menu turn out to be frozen broccoli and crinkle-cut carrots. Needless to say, not much on the tray is local, which is ironic, given that the school’s mascot is the farmer.

This kind of meal is not unique. Chicken patties, pork patties, hamburger patties, hot dogs, corn dogs, cheese pizza—these are the staples of school lunch, not just in Hawai‘i, but also around the country. In part, this is because highly processed foods are cheap to make and easy to serve, enticing attributes for large school districts responsible for serving close to half a million meals a week. Hawai‘i’s public school system, for instance, is one of the 10 largest districts in the nation and is overseen by a single food authority. The food authority procures food for all 256 schools, including Moloka‘i High School. It employs nearly 1,200 people and operates 197 production kitchens, which churn out more than 100,000 meals a day.

The prevalence of industrial foodstuffs can also be attributed to increasingly detailed standards set by the National School Lunch Program, the federal meal program that subsidizes lunch costs for public and nonprofit private schools. Over the years, the government has imposed nutrient minimums, calorie maximums, and requisite percentages of whole grains, among other things. “As the program became more and more strict, [there was] a need to centralize a lot of services,” says Dexter Kishida, a supervisor with the School Food Services Branch of the Hawai‘i Department of Education. It was an evolution that prized efficiency and uniformity, following pragmatic principles first established by the Industrial Revolution. Of course, our tastes have changed too, Kishida adds. “We’ve transitioned to a culture that’s very fast-food-oriented,” he says.

Granted, current nutrition guidelines prevent school lunches from consisting only of fried morsels of mechanically separated chicken, but the fruits and vegetables served in Hawai‘i schools mostly come from the mainland. “Our menus are actually aligned to a West Coast growing season,” McKinney says.

It wasn’t always this way. Fifty years ago, made-from-scratch meals were the norm. “Each cafeteria made their own menus, sourced their own goods. It was very decentralized, very school-centric,” Kishida says. “In fact, a group of retirees … were reminiscing about the days when they made ketchup and mayonnaise from scratch.”

Hawai‘i won’t be going back to making its own ketchup, Kishida says, but in 2011, the school district did mandate that 15 out of 25 school lunch entrées be made from scratch, rather than being bought and reheated. The state’s schools also bake their own bread, including hamburger buns and pizza crusts. “We’re one of few districts who still bake,” Kishida says. Then there’s the handful of Hawai‘i products the district can afford. Ninety percent of its stew meat—cut-up chunks of chuck roast—comes from local farmers, and Big Island dairies produce 100 percent of the milk served in the island’s public schools, though they can’t yet supply the rest of the state. “We drain the cows on the Big Island during the school year,” Kishida says.

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This sort of island-specific privilege illustrates what most people say is the biggest challenge: supply. Currently, Hawai‘i doesn’t produce the diversity or quantity of foods required to fill its school lunch trays. To maximize what does exist, and to create new school menus based on current availability, Pfahl is developing a database of every fruit and vegetable grown in the islands, as well as helping charter schools—each of which serves as its own food authority—to leverage what is known as “cooperative purchasing,” where, by combining food orders, the amount of produce is increased and schools are able to get a better price overall. This, in turn, benefits farmers, who now have a larger and more consistent customer base.

But even if Hawai‘i farms grow to meet demand, they still may not be able to compete with mainland prices. Harmonee Williams is the food security program manager for Sust‘āinable Molokai, a food advocacy group headquartered in Kaunakakai. She points to one of Moloka‘i’s many farms as an example of such lopsided economics. “Kumu Farms grows beautiful, organic bags of lettuce for $3.50 a bag. We can get iceberg heads for 25 cents from California,” she says. “When you get two dollars and [seventy-five cents] per student per meal, it’s really hard to make the numbers work.”

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You may not guess it from looking at their lunch trays, but Moloka‘i High School students grow a tremendous amount of food. A farm and greenhouse dominate the west side of the campus. Thick stands of banana and papaya tower over long rows of taro moistened with shredded-paper mulch, piled around each plant like rainbow-colored slaw. Jagged-edged wing beans dangle from a chain-link fence, and seedlings grow in gallon-sized aluminum cans that once held Bartlett pears and baked beans.

The scene is reminiscent of the days when Moloka‘i students raised cattle and vigorously participated in the student club Future Farmers of America, which was recently reestablished. Cultivated by principal Stanford Hao, the club has developed an impressive agricultural operation that serves not only as an outdoor classroom but also as a working commercial farm that supplies eggplant and other vegetables to local restaurants. Students enrolled in the school’s agricultural electives learn the basics of farming, but because Moloka‘i is a public school managed by the DOE’s single food authority, its meals are predetermined for the entire year, and procurement decisions are made by the state. As a result, anything grown on the school’s farm is made into what is known as “value added” products, like salsa and kimchi, to be sold at fundraisers or given away.

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The property also plays a role in the larger farm system. Just a few steps from the farm’s raised planting beds sits a small bamboo structure built as a packing facility for Sust‘āinable Molokai’s new “mobile market,” which serves as a way to connect farmers directly with consumers. “Any farmer or producer on island can say, ‘I’ve got avocados, mangoes, lettuce,’ whatever they have, and then as a consumer, you can go online and place your order,” Williams explains. “Then we drive out to the farms, pick up the products, wash it, aggregate it, and then take it out to drop-off points.” Hao and Williams envision the school becoming an agricultural hub, and possibly even a destination for agritourism, which could create additional opportunities for students while also raising money for the school.

Even in urban Honolulu, food-focused education has students, like ‘Iolani School senior Noah Nua, thinking about careers in agriculture. Nua was among the dozens of students who lobbied Hawai‘i’s legislators in support of SB 376, the bill that formalized the farm-to-school program. Nua told lawmakers that his dream was to own a sustainable farm on O‘ahu, with a demonstration garden just like the one on the roof of ‘Iolani’s new Sullivan Center. The garden, an assemblage of pots, planters, and hydroponic towers, is the brainchild of Debbie Millikan, ‘Iolani’s buoyant sustainability specialist and a member of the statewide Farm to School Hui. Although the garden is just a fraction of the size of Molokai’s farm, it produces such a bounty that at least once a week, the school’s cafeteria serves a salad composed mostly of roof-grown greens and herbs.

Where open space is more plentiful, schools have gotten equally creative. Behind Laupāhoehoe is a small, cement-block shed that’s been converted into a piggery. Inside, a pig lolls about on a bed of banana leaves in various states of decay. “He’s about eight months old now,” says special education teacher Mark Fontaine, who, with farm-to-school coordinator Jenny Bach, is leading the school’s foray into animal husbandry. Fontaine uses activities like feeding the pig as a reward for his students. “It’s hard to keep ’em out of there,” he says. “They’ll climb over to get in with him.” The banana leaves, Fontaine explains, are part of a method adapted from Korean natural farming practices.

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Ironically, the pig eats better than most students. His diet consists mostly of local banana, sweet potato, and papaya, picked by students from trees just steps from the piggery. “He really likes the papaya,” Fontaine says. The pig also dines on the leftover bread, milk, and vegetables from the school cafeteria. Come December, the pig will serve as the main course of a school-wide Christmas party. For Bach, it’s the logical next step in teaching kids where food comes from, as well as a way to increase the amount of local food on their lunch trays from 25 percent to her ultimate goal of 75 percent or even 100.

Fontaine says the school is able to raise four pigs at a time, and they are ramping up to do so. New banana trees have been planted, and young papaya seedlings are ready to go in the ground. On the other side of the school, five acres have been fenced off for cattle. “We have this whole area,” Fontaine says, gesturing to the school’s expansive grounds. “The potential is just huge.”

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Lunch. It’s a visceral memory, universally imbued with feelings of freedom and togetherness, a break from teachers and long division. Wherever we grew up, whatever our ethnicity and socioeconomic status, whether we attended public school or private, school lunch is one of those rare shared experiences.

It also subtly teaches us about food, about what’s “nutritious” and what’s not. In many ways, our lunch trays are a reflection of what we value as a community. In Hawai‘i, many feel that the farm-to-school movement is as much about perpetuating Native Hawaiian culture as it is about eating locally grown foods. “The Hawaiians were able to sustain the number of [people] who were here with the foodstuffs that they grew themselves,” Hao, Moloka‘i High School’s principal, says. “If we take some of [these] practices, would we be able to sustain ourselves?”

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Tammy Smith, co-owner of ‘Ai Pono Catering Services, says cultural education is often missing from discussions about local food. Smith’s company supplies lunches for several schools on O‘ahu, including Hālau Kū Māna, a Hawaiian immersion school that operates out of temporary classroom buildings in Makiki Valley.

Lunch here is served outside on long picnic tables. The meals—which are prepared in Kailua at Smith’s restaurant, Hale Kealoha, and delivered daily to the school—come in disposable, compartmentalized trays and feature entrées like kalo (taro) burgers, kālua pig, pork long rice, and hamburger curry. As often as she can, Smith buys ingredients from local farms, but it comes with a cost. Hālau Kū Māna, which has a student body of just 135 kids, pays $5.25 per lunch. It subsidizes one dollar per meal, but the $4.25 price tag is still well above the $2.75 a family would pay for a standard public high school lunch.

Williams, of Sust‘āinable Molokai, is determined to find a cost-effective way to serve such Hawai‘i-grown food in schools. As the wife of a kalo farmer, she also wants to see the meals at Moloka‘i High School look more like those that Smith provides. Now, more than any other time in recent history, such a reality is within reach. If the state continues its support of the farm-to-school program, school lunches throughout Hawai‘i could soon reflect a very different culture. “If I can have one simple target, it’ll be to get kalo on the lunch plate before my kids graduate,” Williams says. “They’re 4 and 5, so I’ve got some time.”

This story is part of our School Spirit Issue.