WAIMEA, Hawaii island >> A group of cafeteria workers in white hairnets listened as chef Greg Christian demonstrated the importance of properly preparing ingredients before starting to cook. Prep work is vital to an organized kitchen that cooks from scratch, he said as he sliced a large carrot in the Kohala Elementary School kitchen. Items should be ready to go into the pan when the cook starts the stove, then served fresh. He calls the approach “just-in-time cooking.”
It was just one of a multitude of back-to-basics lessons that have taken place since October in Kohala’s cafeteria.
As is the case in many of today’s school kitchens, none of the Kohala staff had culinary training. It hadn’t been necessary, because most of the food served came precooked and processed. Work mostly involved opening cans and bags and reheating the food.
Christian was in town to teach the staff to prepare about 550 student lunches from scratch every day using locally produced ingredients. The kitchen serves a school complex that includes middle- and high-school students.
“There were no cooks in the kitchen. There was a former van driver, a former teacher’s aide and a baker,” said Christian, a trainer from Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners, which has built farm-to-school models across North America.
“When I first go into a kitchen, the staff doesn’t know if they can do it,” he said of the scratch cooking. “So I am at the cutting board all day with them, and we cook and cook and cook.”
Revamping Kohala’s lunches is the first step in a state pilot project under the Farm to School Initiative, with its ambitious aims to source locally grown food for public-school lunches, prepare meals from scratch and reduce food waste.
Christian was hired to work through the end of the school year to get the ball rolling.
“We’re building a learning lab to show Hawaii what it looks like to transition from processed food to scratch cooking,” said Christian. “The change is cost-neutral. There’s no need for more labor or time for scratch cooking. My guess is that it will save money, because there’s lots of waste here.”
Dexter Kishida, a School Food Services supervisor, said the anecdotal evidence from Kohala so far is “overwhelming.”
“At the high school the lunch line is out the door when they do laulau. Never was the line so long in the history of that school.”
The changes in Kohala’s cafeteria started with clearing out much of the processed food. It was a scary time for Priscilla Galan, the school’s cafeteria manager.
“Greg gave away most of the ready-made food to other schools, and I thought, ‘Oh no! Local kids love the gravy!’ But I found out we can make the hamburger patties, we can make the gravy,” she said.
The new menu has involved input from both students and kitchen staff.
“I came in and asked the ladies, ‘If you were in charge, what would you serve the kids?’ I met with students to ask them what they want to eat, and we married all that up,” Christian said. “I don’t go to schools with recipes. We figure it all out together.”
To be accurate about portions, the staff began measuring by weight rather than volume. They also started weighing food thrown away to keep tabs on waste.
In the pantry and refrigerators, cans and bags of processed foods were replaced with fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, much of which Galan sources from Big Island farms and ranches.
Now, she said, the kitchen requires fewer items because everything is made from scratch. And because of this, costs are indeed lower than before Christian arrived.
Favorites on the menu: the laulau, pizza with dough and sauce made on-site, hamburgers and lomi tomato. Dishes that aren’t well received are revamped or replaced — “we revise as we go along,” said Christian.
Based on student surveys, for instance, too many egg dishes were on the breakfast menu, so French toast and smoothies were swapped in.
“Students are our customers, and it’s nice to listen to customers,” Christian said.
The Farm to School Initiative involves the state Education, Health and Agriculture departments, and private organizations including the Ulupono Initiative, the Kohala Center and Kaiser Permanente. It is spearheaded by the lieutenant governor’s office.
At the core of the change is food procurement, which is governed by federal regulations that require schools to procure American products at the lowest price possible or with the best value. These standards come with federal subsidies released by the USDA.
Hawaii’s Department of Education public-school system falls under a single school food authority, part of the DOE’s School Food Service Branch, which determines how food is procured for school lunches. Until recently procurement was dictated by lowest price. That means produce purchases have been sourced mostly from outside Hawaii.
The authority also decided to use processed and precooked meals that came exclusively from outside Hawaii.
Enter Robyn Pfahl, the state’s first farm-to-school coordinator, hired by the Department of Agriculture about 18 months ago. Pfahl’s purview includes agricultural, culinary and nutrition education; school gardens; and food procurement. Her 15 years working in agriculture and 10 years as a community facilitator fueled her desire to re-examine the procurement code; her law degree helped her navigate the intricacies of buying local. She’s working with the DOE to make the shift.
“There’s an option stating that procurement doesn’t always need to be dictated by lowest price,” she said. “You can go by best value, and the criteria of value could be freshness of food. There’s an initiative for geographical preference — you can select local food. Contracts must be competitive, they’ve got to be in the best interest of taxpayers. But the buyer can define ‘local’ by state or ahupuaa (ancient Hawaiian land divisions that stretched from the mountain to the sea). There’s a lot of latitude as long as there’s competition. You can also reserve the right to award contracts to multiple vendors.”
Pfahl even found a “Hawaiian preference” in the code that eases cost constraints if products are grown in Hawaii.
“It has never been used in our state before for food,” she said. “This job is amazing because with my law background I can find out what’s what.”
At Kohala Elementary, fifth-grader Kalae Nicholson calls the new menu “more delicious” and particularly likes the new version of pepperoni pizza “because of the stuff on it. It’s really good now.”
Ten-year-old Lluvia Cornejo’s favorite lunch item: “grilled cheese, because I like the taste of it when you dip it into tomato soup.”
From-scratch and fresh is better, said Galan, the cafeteria manager, but learning to deliver those meals hasn’t been easy. “At first it was overwhelming,” she said. “Everyone was against it — there were too many changes.”
The new menu was launched Jan. 9. Christian said the most important skill he has tried to instill is teamwork, something unnecessary when serving food that comes out of cans and packages.
“Opening canned peaches takes 15 minutes; cutting fresh pineapple takes two to three man-hours. To be efficient, they must work as one team. The time is there to prep and cook from scratch,” he said.
Delivering good food that students enjoy is huge for the Kohala staff, he said. “They love these kids. Everything they have goes into this. It hurts their hearts when they see the kids throwing out the food.”
“The kids are just like family, and we take care of family. If the kids are satisfied, we believe they can study better,” she said. “I love our homemade foods. Our storeroom is not clogged with chemicals. We bake homemade bread every day, and we make our own sauces — we even make pizza sauce from scratch, and I’ll brag about that sauce. We learned the right way to make it.
“I’m really proud of what we’re doing. I don’t want us to go backwards. Now I’m beginning to see the whole picture.”
What’s next?: Schools initiative could take 4 years
The state’s Farm to School Initiative pilot in the Kohala complex wraps up in May. The next step is expanding on Hawaii island to involve two schools to start, then adding two to three schools a month and eventually involving all 43 schools on the island.
“The goal is to go islewide,” School Food Services Supervisor Dexter Kishida said.
The eventual aim is to go statewide, Kishida said. “I’m guessing this is a four-year process to get to a formalized, full-scale implementation.”
Chef Daniel Leung of Kapiolani Community College’s culinary department, which also is involved in the project, says success at the school level opens the doors for other institutions, such as hospitals and prisons, to follow suit.
The effort began where the potential impact is greatest, Leung said, referring to the formidable size of the public-school system. With its roughly 180,000 students, it is the state’s biggest purchaser of food.
As part of the University of Hawaii system, KCC’s role is to provide research, development and training, he said. In partnership with the DOE office of Hawaii Child Nutrition Programs and the state Department of Agriculture, KCC is seeking funding for recipe development and training of school food-service staff.
KCC will also test methods for properly processing, packaging and storing large quantities of local products, he said. Surplus or off-grade Hawaii tomatoes, for instance, could be tapped for tomato sauce to be used in standard lunch fare such as chili or spaghetti.
Kishida says he isn’t sure exactly how the local-food program will be implemented systemwide.
“Will it look like what’s happening at Kohala? Probably not,” he said.
Perhaps there will be a weekly local meal to start, or local products will be supplemented by imported foods. There’s also been talk of replacing traditional lunch items like carrot and celery sticks with something locally grown, such as prepared sweet potato sticks.
The point: “We’ve got to start somewhere. It’s an evolution.”