‘Aina Pono Brings Local Food to Mililani High

Chanelle Camero

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     This school year, ‘Aina Pono: Hawaii’s Farm to School initiative that aims to bring fresh, local food to schools statewide, was introduced to MHS. Looking to increase the purchasing of local and healthy food for school lunch programs and the number of students that eat school meals, MHS became the first large scale school to test if the program could be expanded to the rest of the state.

    “What we can expect in the future is more local food (and) more scratch cooking. We’re doing two breakfasts and two lunches about a week (in March) and then in April it should be four and four. So we’re heading towards 100 percent scratch cooking,” said ‘Aina Pono Chef Guide Greg Christian.

    Christian’s role in the program is to guide the cafeteria staff and teach them about the initiative’s vision and what they aim for. “I’m kind of like this redesigner. And in redesigning the system, or moving the system, there’s a little bit of an art to that, so I have studied systems thinking and read a lot of books and studied with one of the masters in the world. Another most important part of my job is to never forget that this is about people,” said Christian.

    Christian, a traveling chef, worked closely with the cafeteria staff when designing and implementing the program. “I want the cafeteria staff to have a voice in what they do. They haven’t really had much of a voice in their jobs so I want them to feel empowered to do even better for the customers,” said Christian. DOE Food Service Manager Debora Kam added, “We’re still working on this program so we’ll get better at it. But we’re giving my staff more knowledge on this and continue working with this program. I think it’ll be great for them and the students will love the food.”

    A lot of consideration went into designing a process that would be the most effective. “I’ve been in classrooms and they fill out surveys. I start there, ‘What do you want to eat?’ And then I go to the cafeteria staff and say, ‘What do you want to make?’ And they look at kitchen equipment, ‘What can we handle?’ And then I converge those three and we make what we think the customer wants and what the staff wants to make with the food that the farmers have. And we sample it to the customers and say, ‘Is this what you meant?’ and if the customers say, ‘Yes,” then we have something; and if the customers say ‘No,’ then we ask them why and then we make it again,” said Christian.

    The process of putting the program into effect included a focus on menu development, in which new recipes that incorporated fresh, local produce were created. “If we can get local foods into cafeterias, we could help the farmers more,” said Christian. “This could be a model for the states on the mainland. Because you have one school district here so it’s an entire state. So if an entire state can transform to serving more local, more fresh food, other states might take notice.”

    The next step was to prepare the cafeteria staff for the new changes. Christian helped to train them in three main areas: teamwork, cooking and buying local. “I think that with this new program the staff is working more as a team. They enjoy talking to each other because they’re all together. Whereas when they used to work before, they used to work separately,” said Kam.

    To keep order in the kitchen when it came to training, there was a set schedule made. “Well actually, I made a production schedule where they tell me what they have to do for the day and then I’ll put it on the schedule and what the team would do is, they would all go to one set of position where they would help out with all salad bar,” said Kam.

    After a few weeks of starting the initiative, surveys went out to the students, allowing them to share their thoughts on the food. “It’s been great. Everyone seems to be loving it and enjoying it. In my experience personally, I can see more of my friends eating school lunch and enjoying it more,” said Student Senator Freshman Jannai Oganeku. Christian added, “The most important voices are the customers and the staff in the kitchen. And I want that to expand because if it does, then the program is solid. If it doesn’t, then the customers get quiet. I also want to see expanding is the number of people that come and eat because if the food is fabulous, why shouldn’t people come and eat?”

    To further allow students to offer their voice and opinions, student senators were asked to give their input on the program. “We focus on trying to get the DOE on board with this program and just spread the word about it. We also provide feedback on the foods and try them out. We tell them what tastes good and what doesn’t and what we would like to change or add,” said Oganeku. “We improve the new lunches by providing ideas for future lunches and just helping the staff out in what the kids want to eat.”

    With the many different aspects of the initiative working together, ‘Aina Pono’s goals were slowly being understood. “If young people can learn how to make healthy food choices, they might have a little bit of an easier time in life, and everyone’s homes are doing the best they can to teach healthy food choices. But sometimes at home, sometimes the home people need a little help. If people in Hawaii can be a little healthier and a little stronger and maybe have a bit of a clearer mind, they can then help more; the community, their families and the world,” said Christian. Oganeku added, “It helps more students to eat healthier. It also opens more opportunities to have fresh fruit and vegetables and helps our local farmers. I feel like it also helps our community in sustainability and educating us about all the local farms we have access to and it just makes sense.”

    Two months have passed since ‘Aina Pono’s implementation and Kam has stated that the cafeteria staff has gotten used to the new schedule and enjoy the new changes, especially  developing stronger teamwork. All breakfasts and lunches are now scratch cooked and use local produce surpassing the April goal of four scratch cooked breakfast and lunch meals a week. As of right now, the cafeteria  receives produce from Sugar Land Farms, Aloun Farm and various Big Island farms including Xinhwa Farm and Hirako Farm. Currently, Kam is working with Peterson’s Upland Farm in Wahiawa to bring in a constant supply of fresh eggs to Mililani High.

    However, with its success, the ‘Aina Pono initiative’s future remains uncertain. But with community support and strengthening ties with local farms as well as educating students about nutrition and health the program may thrive and expand to other schools in the state for years to come.

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