Addressing Childhood Hunger in Hawai’i’s Schools

By Carly Wyman, FoodCorps service member

The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated island chain in the world. At 2,300 miles from San Francisco, 3,900 miles from Japan, and 5,500 miles from Australia, you simply can’t get more isolated from the continents. It is on the fringe of human habitation. Over 90% of the food that is consumed in the islands is imported. Were there to be a natural disaster or emergency that would prevent this imported food from getting to Hawai’i, it would only have 10 days worth of food to support its residents at any given time.

At the easternmost end of the chain lies the youngest of the Hawaiian Islands. It is so young, in fact, that it is still being born from the ocean as the volcano Kilauea pours a steady stream of lava down the mountainside and into the ocean today. Hawai’i Island is mostly rural, with only two large towns in a place the size of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined. Then there is Puna- a mostly isolated, rural district on the windward, wet side of Hawai’i Island. Many, if not most, residents live off-grid and there are few services such as healthcare, banking, police, and grocery stores. The majority of Puna residents receive some kind of governmental assistance and nearly 30% receive food stamps. Food insecurity is simply a reality for everyone here, regardless of income.

It is in this setting that I have served as the FoodCorps service member in two low-income public charter schools. This year, I have worked with over 100 students in several different gardens, exploring concepts around science and ecology, art, and nutrition. As a garden educator joyfully growing food with students, it doesn’t always feel food insecure here. We have trees producing food year-round on our campuses and enjoy a growing season that doesn’t really end. However, the dependence on imported food from the Mainland and elsewhere is striking.

School lunch in Hawai’i is dominated by imported foods. Hawai’i has only one school district that covers all of the islands and it generally places orders with vendors that can supply an item for the entire state. Local vendors are therefore blocked out, unable to provide the quantity and lowest price that the large district demands. The School Food Services Branch procurement regulations are therefore a major barrier to addressing childhood hunger in Hawai’i since they prevent local food, which is fresher and more nutrient-dense, from being included in school lunch.

Monique Mironesco writes of school lunch regulations in Hawai’i:

“The stringent food safety rules and regulations [of school lunch in Hawai’i] prevent direct farm-to-school sales, so that children are not able to eat the foods they grow in their own school gardens in the cafeteria, and kitchens are not allowed to accept produce from individual farmers who may be willing to bypass distributors and vendors to provide locally grown produce to school cafeterias because they are not necessarily food safety certified.”

The meals served in Hawai’i’s public schools are often high in fat content and utilize recipes that have remained essentially unchanged for the past 30 years. And although we have thriving gardens at our schools, (over 40% of the public, charter, and independent K-12 schools in the state have a school garden) and fruit trees such as papayas, bananas, citrus, breadfruit, and avocado growing abundantly on our campuses, the barriers to getting these foods into the cafeteria are almost insurmountable without policy change at the state level.

Giving students the opportunity to have hands-on experiences with growing and cooking nutritious foods is another great way to address child hunger in Hawai’i. This spring, I brought a group of 12 middle and high school garden students to a local subsistence farm for a field trip. About 70% of what the farmers there eat (a community of about 14 people) comes from their land. On our field trip, we worked in the gardens and learned about the importance of adding organic matter to build soil in an area where hard, black lava rock has yet to yield to become soil. Next we harvested and cooked a delicious farm to table meal. Students helped prepare the meal of farm-raised chicken stew, pan fried taro and sweet potato, homemade hot sauce, steamed greens, and coconut “bacon.” As we filled our plates with this nutritious local food, I could see the excitement in the eyes of the students. Every single student tried and enjoyed a new dish that day.

As we began to pack up and head back to campus at the end of the day, a high school freshman girl turned to me. She said, “This is one of the best meals I have ever had! Usually, I just eat Spaghetti-Os or things like that for dinner.” In that moment, I saw the power that hands-on lessons around nutritious food have to meet the needs of children who come to school hungry. I saw a seed planted in her mind that day around what our food system could look like. She was able to catch a glimpse of a Hawai’i where we are providing the majority of our calories from our islands, rather than importing them from thousands of miles away in processed, packaged forms.

In my experience, it is this hands-on interaction with growing and preparing food that helps students to form relationships with their local food system in a meaningful way. When students learn to grow and cook food in school, they take these skills home to their families. Many of my students have begun gardening at home after falling in love with growing and cooking. When students are empowered to make healthy choices, they begin to change the buying habits of their families and for themselves as they come into adulthood.

Reducing barriers to sourcing local produce in Hawai’i School Food Services is another important way. Though Hawai’i’s agricultural producers may not immediately be able to produce enough food to fulfill all of the 100,000 meals served in Hawai’i’s schools daily, beginning to shift towards more local sourcing of school lunch products is still worth pursuing because of the positive impact this can have on childhood hunger and health. And as these children become adults, perhaps their experience with school gardens will shift the system further towards nutritious school meal options for the generations to come.

FoodCorps Service Member Carly Wyman was a runner-up in the 2017 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $1,000 prize for her service site, Kua O Ka La in Pahoa, HI. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.