Kawaikini Public Charter School students lunch on lū‘au stew, laulau and other dishes made primarily with ingredients locally sourced on Kaua‘i.
These farm-to-school meals do more than fill bellies. They’re a key component of Mālama Kaua‘i’s Māla‘ai Kula program, which incorporates agriculture and nutrition-related education into Kawaikini’s curriculum. Learning takes place in gardens planted by students and teachers, in the classroom through multidisciplinary lessons, and in the cafeteria where students can taste the fruits of their labor, as prepared by chef Barbara Jean Kaauwai.
“Basically the premise is to incorporate as much local food into the school meal programs as possible and then also help support the teachers and schools in incorporating food, nutrition and agriculture education on a weekly basis,” explained Megan Fox, Mālama Kaua‘i’s Executive Director. “It’s a three year pilot. We’re looking to build capacity and sustainability within the program and with the schools so in three years we can step out and work with new schools on it.”
The Māla‘ai Kula program fills a critical need. During the 2014-2015 school year, all four Hawaiian-focused charter schools on Kaua‘i lost food service for various reasons, which meant all students had to bring home lunches and schools couldn’t feed students who qualified for free and reduced-price meals.
“Parents had to choose between their children receiving a culturally immersive education or getting fed at school. Now at least for two schools, we can say they don’t have to make that choice,” Fox said, referring to Ke Kula ‘o Ni‘ihau in Kekaha, as well as Kawaikini in Līhu‘e. In July, Mālama Kaua‘i was awarded a two year, $170,000 grant from OHA to create a culturally-relevant farm-to-school program at both schools.
“We never thought we would get into catering but someone had to do it. With OHA’s help, we launched that food service program this school year,” Fox said.
She has no regrets. “When I get to come to campus and actually have Chef Barbara’s lunch and see what the kids are eating compared to what kids are eating in other places, that makes it all worth it,” she said. For ingredients, “We’re going to farmers and supporting our farmers, growing their businesses. To see kids say ‘I like salad’ and ‘I eat fruit on purpose now,’ those are big things.”
Jessell Tanaka, Kawaikini’s executive director, said before Mālama Kaua‘i, food vendors could only provide lunch service every other day, or sometimes every other week. “I don’t know how we would actually serve lunch, coordinate it and hire the staff without Mālama Kaua‘i. We just don’t have the resources or the budget or really the time to spend and it’s just such an important part of their learning.”
Ke Kula ‘o Ni‘ihau, located in an OHA-owned building, has a kitchen. Through the National School Lunch Program, the school can serve a daily breakfast, lunch and snack for all students, free of charge. With Mālama Kaua‘i’s assistance, the school was able to hire a kitchen manager and fund a school garden.
Fox’s goal is to create a program that schools can sustain beyond the grant period. “They can be a standalone pilot model for other schools to really be inspired from,” Fox said. “They’re already doing amazing things. We’re only a few months into this, so seeing how much progress they’ve already made in their gardens and in their education and with food has been really exciting.”
The grant allowed Kawaikini to add a full-time Farm-to-School AmeriCorps VISTA member, Angelina Mangiardi, to help integrate school gardens into the curriculum. The school is in the process of planting a broad assortment of vegetables in hope that the students will find ones they like. One plant that has already resonated with the students is kalo. “The students incorporate that into their education, learning all the different parts of the plants and how to produce poi and all the cultural connections and the importance of that plant. We’re also able to use that in recipes like laulau and other delicious things our chef creates,” she said.
One of the biggest challenges is having to wash all the dishes by hand, which involves a network of volunteers and has pushed a dishwasher to the top of Fox’s wishlist. “Another, surprisingly, is finding chicken on Kaua‘i, which is insane,” she said. “We have plenty of them running around but no one’s really producing meat birds on island. We’ve been lucky with beef and pork for protein but chicken has been difficult to find.”
Those challenges are met with rewards, “I think knowing that we provide the children one solid, nutritious local meal every day while they’re in school is really just the foundation to their health,” said Fox. “They’re learning more of where that food actually comes from, the industry of food on Kaua‘i. Making that connection is a lot deeper than even just filling their tummies, or filling their brains, or filling their hearts, we’re connecting them to their community and that makes it a lot bigger than just providing lunch.”