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Students from Kalani High School enjoy a scratch-made loco moco dish made with locally raised beef.

Hawaii schools push local and scratch

After years of heat-and-serve, kitchens in Island schools are starting to turn out traditional dishes made with ingredients sourced from nearby.

After many years of relying on premade processed foods, schools in Hawaii are starting to get with the farm-to-school movement that stresses local sourcing and scratch preparation. It started several years ago in a pilot program in the Kohala district on the Big Island, then migrated to Mililani High School on Oahu, where the campus also contained two elementary schools, making it an ideal pilot site.

Dishes made in-house like chicken adobo, kalua pig and beef stew soon almost doubled lunch participation and prompted expansion of the program to the point where now the vast majority of schools in the Hawaii district—all the K-12 public schools in the state are part of one district operated by the Hawaii Department of Education (DOE)—participate.

“We want to honor and return to our Islands’ roots, bringing scratch-cooked meals back into our school cafeterias,” offers Albert Scales, school food program administrator for the Hawaii DOE. “It’s about finding a balance in the food we are serving with the USDA's nutrition requirements and creating a harmony of locally grown ingredients that we incorporate into student meals.”

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There is a new emphasis on scratch cooking as opposed to simply using pre-processed product.

A critical component of the new approach is a Harvest of the Month program dubbed ‘Aina Pono.

“The Hawaiian word ‘aina’—without the kahakō or macron—refers to eating or meal,” explains Scales. “’Pono’ means righteousness and is often used to mean being honorable, doing things correctly, being in a state of balance and harmony. When we combine the two words together, it can loosely translate to ‘righteous meal’ as one interpretation. Along those same lines, to be ‘pono’ is about doing what’s right.”

The ‘Aina Pono: Harvest of the Month initiative allows locally grown produce and beef to be introduced into the school meal program, says Scales. “It also allows us to provide healthy options in our meal program while working with our local farmers and ranchers in the community. Buying local helps to promote sustainability and strengthen Hawaii’s economy by supporting local businesses.”

Among locally sourced ingredients that were Harvest of the Month items this past spring were beef, bananas, papaya, pineapple and ‘ulu (breadfruit). They were generally incorporated into recipes such as local favorites loco moco (rice topped with a burger patty and a fried egg) and beef stew.

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Breadfruit is one of the native Hawaiian crops that are being incorporated into school meals, and the Ulu-licious wrap is made with local ulu (i.e., breadfruit).

“We also developed an ‘Aina Pono: Harvest of the Month recipe adapted for home use so these dishes or desserts can be recreated for family and friends,” Scales adds.

“The impact has been amazing,” he says. “There have been students who are trying locally grown fruits and vegetables for the first time. Our program is helping to expand our students’ food palate, and also teach them how to make healthy food choices. Depending on each student’s family culture, some of these locally grown produce are not bought and consumed at home, but through our program, these students have a chance to try it at school.”

Scales says he also wanted to boost site cooking so that the meals weren’t simply reheated commercially prepared products. 

Taking back the kitchen

“When I became the School Food Services Branch director in 2017, I wanted to go back to our roots and increase the amount of scratch cooking done in our school cafeterias,” he explains. “Before the invention of canned goods, food was always prepared fresh and cooked from scratch.”

Fortunately, there was already a scratch cooking foothold in the school meal program as “we were already baking from scratch prior to the launch of our ‘Aina Pono: Harvest of the Month program,” Scales notes. “Our school cafeteria staff made fresh bread and rolls daily. We also make cookies and we even make our pies for the holidays.”

The baked goods are for the schools to feed students, teachers and staff and not for outside customers, he stresses.

“We have been baking since the inception of school food here in Hawaii,” Scales says. “We have always had bakers and continue to have them. We are probably one of the few school districts who never got rid of their bakers.”

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Currently, the system has 197 baking kitchens that help to feed its 256 schools. Bakers are recruited by the Hawaii State DOE’s Office of Talent Management from local culinary programs at community colleges and at career fairs.

Meanwhile, the purpose of the larger scratch cooking initiative is to use more fresh ingredients instead of preservative-laden canned items, though fresh has its own challenges, such as requiring more prep time for cutting up fresh fruits and vegetables than would be needed to simply open up a can of peaches, Scales offers.

“Cafeteria workers also need to be trained or skilled in fresh food preparation, including knowing how to use the necessary kitchen equipment to get the job done,” he adds.

Another challenge is that fresh ingredients must be refrigerated and used within days, while canned goods can be stored for months at a time.

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Sweet and sour pineapple pork is made with local pineapple.

“School cafeterias must plan their menu accordingly to make sure they have enough room in their walk-in refrigerators and use the product before it spoils,” Scales notes. “We work with the school cafeteria managers on the type of skills and kitchen equipment are needed to prepare the students’ meals.”

The local sourcing and scratch cooking initiatives are part of an overhaul of the Hawaii Schools dining program, Scales says.

“My goal as director is to ensure that we have not just fresh products but local products. We want to help increase our students' health, awareness of their community as well as support our local economy. We are [also] working to become a greener school district by getting rid of Styrofoam trays [and] are looking at other innovative ways to reduce our footprint on the earth as well. We hope to reach these goals in the next coming years.”

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