HONOLULU (KHON2) — A new law requires the Hawaii Department of Education (DOE) to drastically ramp up local food sourcing for public schools. Always Investigating looked at how big a challenge that’s going to be.
The DOE has less than a decade to ramp up to more than 10 times the current portion of island-sourced food for school meals.
Plate lunches made from scratch comprise school meals for the few campuses that have been lucky to be on the leading edge of transformation in how keiki are fed.
“I was out at Waimea High School on Kauai, and they have this innovation kitchen,” explained Randall Tanaka, an assistant superintendent overseeing the food service operations of the DOE. “They showed us some stuff that I tell you could be plated at Roy’s.”
It’s the way of the future thanks to a new law Gov. David Ige signed last week to ensure at least 30% of public school food products will be locally sourced by 2030. Just how big a jump is that? Only 3% is grown, not flown or shipped, today.
“I’ve seen it as low as 1% and as high as about 12%,” Tanaka said. “It depends on the school.”
According to Ulupono Initiative, in one semester of a Kohala pilot, they were able to achieve one-fourth locally sourced food. KHON2 wanted to know why it is so hard to get above the single digits on average in proportion of local versus imported food.
“One of the easiest things about imported food is you can get large quantities of it very fast, and it doesn’t matter what season it is,” explained Jesse Cooke from the Ulupono Initiative. “With this process, when you’re trying to buy more local food, you have to take into account seasonality.”
That’s just from field, tree and vine. There are also meats, poultry and fish to figure out.
“We don’t have an actual commercial-size meat facility that processes the poultry, so there’s no way to even get broilers in big volume that you need,” Cooke said. “The one area where we are very, very fortunate to have a lot of strength is the beef industry. In fish, a lot of kids have a problem with it unless maybe it’s breaded.”
For every plate served up locally sourced, dollars stay in the state, and it promises to add up quickly.
“You can consider them [DOE] the largest restaurant in Hawaii, and this is huge,” Cooke said. “The school spends about $45 million a year on just food purchases, not labor, just simple food purchases.”
The total operating budget in food service is about $125 million a year. The pilot projects so far have proven to save money but cutting losses and waste — both the DOE and Ulupono Initiative say the kids like the food and more are buying school lunch.
DOE cooks have to learn a whole new way of preparing school meals.
“It’s a whole recalibration of what we do,” Tanaka said, “because even in our kitchens, we now have to do more scratch cooking, it’s not pre-prepared. We’re not shoving the chicken nuggets in the oven, right?”
Scratch cooking is not easy to do more than 100,000 times a day for lunch and more than 30,000 a day for breakfast. However, if the DOE can do it, so can other big institutional buyers that are also now required by law under a separate bill to buy more local, and soon.
“If you get to deal with up to 30% local, you’re talking about $15 million a year to local farmers, every single year,” Cooke said. “You add on the prisons and the hospitals, you’ll probably get up to maybe $25 million. So there’s a ripple effect throughout the economy.”
KHON2 will continue to track the DOE’s progress toward the ‘buy local’ target and deadlines.