Cover Story

Photographs by Malia Leinau

Getting kids to eat healthier by teaching them to grow their own food


Cover image for Oct 18, 2006

Dexter Kishida is a young, energetic food service manager who sits at a child-sized cafeteria table and smiles amidst the clatter of lunch trays. He shrugs as he admits children complained when he downsized the portion size of chicken nuggets from six to four pieces and started to serve only three-quarters of a hot dog. ‘Hot dogs have enough fat and sodium for two weeks,’ he says. ‘I point the kids to the salad bar where they can eat as much as they want.’

Now in its third year, Kishida’s plan to transition Wai’alae Elementary’s students to healthier lunches is moving ahead in small, but hopeful ways. ‘Our biggest win was changing from serving grilled cheese every Thursday to every other week and substituting a fresh chicken wrap,’ he says. ‘We also took out the Slush Puppy machine at the snack bar.’

But the challenges are many: higher costs, added preparation time, limited local supply, tight procurement policies and a culture of junk food and marketing that has conditioned kids’ palates to crave high-fructose corn syrup instead of fresh foods.

And Wai’alae has it easy compared to many public schools. As a charter school, Wai’alae Elementary has independent control of its budget, vendor selection and employee hiring. Located in Kaimuki, the school has a food preparation kitchen where staff can actually clean, chop and cook fresh food compared to serving kitchens at satellite schools where staff mainly heat and serve meals prepared by other school kitchens. Approximately 27 percent of Hawai’i’s public schools have only a serving kitchen.

Wai’alae also has a neighborhood benefit. With a student population drawn from a relatively high-income area, only 11 percent of the school’s students are on the federally subsidized free and reduced lunch program, compared to the over 60 percent in public schools statewide. From a food service budget standpoint, this means the majority of students who buy school lunch pay Wai’alae’s full $3 lunch price, a price already three times as much as regular public schools charge. Yet even with this substantial price premium, within the first two years of the healthier lunch program, student participation went up from 57 to 78 percent.

The charter school is taking its healthy lunch policy even further this year as one of five public schools selected for the ‘AINA in Schools farm-to-schools pilot program, run by the Kokua Hawai’i Foundation, a local charity co-founded by singer Jack Johnson and his wife, Kim.

The farm-to-school movement

Jack and Kim Johnson moved back to Hawai’i in 2002 and started a garden in their backyard. Their niece and nephew helped weed and maintain the garden and also helped to eat the fresh vegetables and fruit. The Johnsons then 2-year-old son would brush off carrots and pop them straight from the dirt into his mouth.

In 2003, at the first Kokua Festival, Kim Johnson met Marty Fujita, the founder of Food for Thought, a farm-to-school program in Ojai, California. Inspired by Fujita’s efforts to bring local produce into Ojai’s public schools, Johnson spearheaded the ‘AINA in Schools project.

‘It was a culmination of a lot of things we feel are important and fit with the foundation’s goal of environmental education,’ she says. ‘It’s not just about nutrition. It’s about interconnectedness–our bodies, our community, our environment, our healthÖWe wanted to close the loop.’

And many school children, especially those in disadvantaged or low-income communities, do not connect the loop these days as they are more likely to see a 7-Eleven than a working farm.

The National Farm to School Program began officially in 2000 as a collaborative program of the Center for Food and Justice and the Community Food Security Coalition. The program was presaged by movements across the country, most notably in Berkeley, Calif., with the Edible Schoolyard, chef Alice Waters’s effort to bring organic farming to local school children. All farm-to-school programs focus on getting local produce into the school, but not all of that produce is organic.

In Hawai’i, several programs inspired the ‘AINA concept, including Hoa ‘Aina O Makaha at Makaha Elementary, Mala’ai Culinary Gardens of Waimea Middle School and the efforts of farmer Mark Paikuli Stride with his farm and Aloha ‘Aina Health Center.

Farm-to-school programs are as diverse as the geographies and people they spring from, but most connect three main areas: health, to help children make healthier food choices; environment, to reconnect them with where their food comes from; and community, to support the local farmer and economy.

‘AINA is rolling out its full-scale program with healthy lunches, garden education, nutrition education, waste management and field trips, with various grade levels participating in certain components.

‘It was more important to roll out all of the programs at once rather than focus on one area,’ Johnson says. ‘We wanted to show the interconnectedness.’

With a budget of just over $180,000 for the two-year pilot program, ‘AINA has chosen schools with motivated principals and food service managers, along with a committed parent-support base. Parent volunteers will actually teach the nutrition lessons. ‘AINA plans to measure the program’s early impact by tracking the change in children’s awareness, health and actual food consumption, but the long-term success of the program requires systemic change.

Systemic change in a fast-food Society

Results from farm-to-school or other like-minded nutrition intervention programs have yet to show the researched, measurable benefits scientists and grant givers like to see, but doing nothing is no longer an option when faced with the staggering statistics and exponential growth in childhood obesity (see ‘Fat kids’ sidebar).

‘We may be expecting too much from focused areas,’ says Gail Woodward-Lopez, associate director for the Center for Weight and Health at the University of California-Berkeley. ‘We need to change the whole environment and it may take years to see any impact. It may be more important to get the community interested and go through leaders who want to institute change.’

Fujita says her farm-to-school efforts in Ojai have made an impact, but the results are anecdotal at this point. ‘Our biggest successes are when we hear kids demand fresh, local persimmons,’ she says. ‘Or when we hear from parents that kids go home and demand fresh foods and ask, ‘Where is that apple from?”

Fujita particularly stresses principles from the Slow Food Movement, which has a platform dedicated to a local, sustainable food supply and against agribusiness and its ill effects on environment, taste and diversity.

But even surrounded by Ventura County, Calif., one of the largest farm communities in the nation, and working within a small school district with only seven schools, Food for Thought has struggled with major challenges, such as the limited school budget for food, a kitchen workforce not used to cooking in the centralized, heat-and-serve kitchen facilities and burdensome procurement policies.

‘In Hawai’i, the challenges are even bigger with the state’s high import dependence, not having enough farmers and the issues of quantity, consistency and efficiency of distribution,’ Fujita says.

Johnson admits the healthy school lunch program, which has to go through the public school food service procurement process, has been the most challenging piece. ‘The level of bureaucracy is so high,’ she says. ‘It’s harder, but once we do it, it will be on a bigger scale.’

Hawai’i has only one superintendent for the entire state school system with more than 250 schools across the islands.

Vincent Dodge, program manager for ‘Ai Pohaku, Wai’anae organic farm MA’O’s edu-cultural food and garden program for Wai’anae Intermediate students, says he tried to donate his program’s extra organic kale to the cafeteria, but the procurement process, especially for small farmers, was prohibitive with its paperwork and certification requirements (see ‘Where’s the farm?’ sidebar).

‘When youths are involved in the making of good food, then they’ll eat it, but if they have no relationship to the food, especially if it’s not familiar, they won’t eat it.’

‘Ai Pohaku is in the third year of growing an organic school garden and the seventh year of its cultural and academic workshops, but has run its programs after school and outside of the school lunch program because of the bureaucracy and lack of support from administrators.

‘We know when young people help grow and prepare their own food, they enjoy it,’ says Dodge. ‘I’ve been amazed at what a teenage boy will eat.’ He cites examples, such as making fresh pesto with youngsters who joked the paste looked like donkey turds, but who were willing to try something new because they had made it themselves.

‘Turns out, most of them liked it,’ Dodge says. ‘When youths are involved in the making of good food, then they’ll eat it, but if they have no relationship to the food, especially if it’s not familiar, they won’t eat it.’

He is working with Wai’anae Intermediate seventh graders this year to plant sweet potato and tapioca to harvest and serve during the state assessment testing days in March. ‘We hope to supply at least one, hopefully two, days of complex starches,’ Dodge says. ‘But we need a certified kitchen to prepare it. If we have to, though, we’ll serve it off campus.’

Dodge thinks ‘AINA is taking the right approach by getting the key players–principals, cafeteria managers and parents–to support the program from a grassroots level.

Bureaucracy and bootstraps

‘Marty [Fujita’s] theory is you have to work from the bottom up, with parents, volunteers and individual schools, and top down, with the district and the legislature,’ says Johnson.

‘AINA in Schools, through the Kokua Hawai’i Foundation, contributed suggestions during the drafting of the state’s Local Wellness Policy, a policy required under the Child Nutrition and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Reauthorization Act of 2004 for all local educational agencies receiving certain federal funds. The final draft is currently under review by the Board of Education.

‘AINA’s commitment is to an interconnected program through systemic change, but Johnson recognizes change will take a long time. She says she hopes ‘AINA will be able to roll out five to 10 more schools at the end of the two-year pilot program, but right now is focusing on ‘working out the kinks’ in the nutrition education curriculum, developing a monitoring system to measure success, implementing composting and recycling and gaining traction in the healthy lunch program.

‘We can’t get too disappointed at not going as quickly as we’d like,’ Johnson says. ‘We need to focus on the positive. Every pilot school has a garden now, and that’s a good thing.’

Where’s the farm in farm-to-school?

‘With less than 20 percent of our food supply produced locally, there are so many opportunities in agriculture,’ says Dean Okimoto, president of the Hawai’i Farm Bureau Federation and owner of Nalo Farms. ‘For farmers to participate [in the farm-to-school program], they have to have good safety certification and not that many farms are certified because they are mostly small farmers and food safety practices are tough to implement and are costly and time consuming.’

Nalo Farms is the only local farm Dexter Kishida, food service director at Wai’alae Elementary, can order from directly because of the high liability insurance requirements of his employer, Sodexho, a national food and facilities company contracted to provide service at the school.

Sodexho does have a ‘local first’ policy, but works mainly with local distribution company Armstrong, not directly with farms, because Armstrong provides compliance to Good Agricultural Practices, a food safety initiative, and meets other procurement standards, including liability. Kishida says that means most of the fresh fruits and vegetables at the daily school salad bar still come from the mainland, with local produce comprised of melons from Aloun, a 1,200-acre farm in ‘Ewa and Kunia, and tomatoes and watermelons from Sugarland, a large conventional farm in central O’ahu.

‘We need to teach kids to eat locally and not depend on corporate agriculture,’ says Okimoto. But he notes small farmers need to band together to build the local supply and make more fresh produce available. With more than 180,000 students in the state’s schools, consistent supply is critical and small farms simply can’t guarantee that level of supply without coordination.

‘The [lunch] food aspect is the final piece for ‘AINA,’ Okimoto says. ‘They need to focus more on agricultural education for now with the gardens in the schools.’

Kristen Kenney, an advisor on the ‘AINA steering committee and co-owner of Town, a Kaimuki restaurant with a local-first, organic-when-possible policy, says the challenge is definitely that there are not enough local farmers to supply the schools. She agrees the gardens and field trips to local farms will be the first step in the farmer outreach program.

In the meantime, she and husband, Ed Kenney, co-owner and chef at Town, hope to help kids learn about nutrition by showing them how to make food from the produce they grow in their own school gardens.–K.F.

Fat Kids

In a super-sized world, kids are now the victims of a new health epidemic, perhaps the first time in history when people are both overweight and malnourished.

According to Gail Woodward-Lopez, associate director at the Center for Weight and Health at the University of California-Berkeley, almost 40 percent of children and adolescents in the U.S. are overweight, which is defined as greater than or equal to 95 percent of the body mass index (BMI), or at-risk of overweight, which is defined as greater than or equal to 85 percent of BMI.

And, for all the recent press on the healthiness of people in Hawai’i, the state is far from immune to national trends. A recent study, ‘Overweight and At-Risk for Overweight in Hawai’i Public School Students Entering Kindergarten, 2002-2003’, published in this month’s Hawai’i Medical Journal, found 14.4 percent of the state’s then 4- and 5-year-olds were overweight, and 14.1 percent were at-risk, a combined average close to 30 percent. Broken down by school complex, that combined average dropped to a low at 17.6 percent at Kaiser on O’ahu and went to a high of 47.1 percent at Hana on Maui, a complex with a high native Hawaiian population.

Native Hawaiians and other minority ethnicities, mainly African Americans and Hispanics, are often hardest hit by childhood obesity. One recent study of Moloka’i adolescents showed obesity rates for those of Hawaiian ancestry twice as high as national rates.

Overweight issues have far-reaching impacts, from young children unable to fit in age-appropriate car seats because they are over the weight limit, to development of chronic diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular problems, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

‘From 1975 to 2000, we have added 500 calories per day per person to the national food supply,’ says Woodward-Lopez. ‘If a person eats 500 more calories per day, that’s the equivalent of gaining 10 pounds per year.’

Most of these extra calories come from cheap junk food laced with high-fructose corn syrup. According to USDA data, corn subsidies in the United States totaled $41.9 billion from 1995-2004. Agriculture in Hawai’i received only $12.9 million in subsidies in the same timeframe.

Arguably, these corn subsidies, often called ‘cheap food’ policies, originated from a desire to create a consistent and stable food supply. However, the unintended consequences include the distorted ‘energy cost’ of food because cheap corn translates into cheap high-fructose corn syrup, which means cheap junk food and soda.

In his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, author Michael Pollan traces four meals from farm-to-table, including a McDonald’s lunch, which he discovers is foundationally built on corn and fossil fuel. He cites a study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that shows one dollar buys 1,200 calories in potato chips and only 250 calories in fresh carrots.

Robin Hamre, program lead for nutrition, physical activity and obesity prevention at the Center for Disease Control, noted the nation’s cultural context of fast food means being overweight is no longer just an issue of individual choice.

‘We need systems change,’ she says. ‘We need societal focus versus individual targets; we need population-based changes. It shouldn’t be so hard to have a healthy weight.’–K.F.