Advocates of school gardens and healthy eating remain frustrated that they are blocked from serving student-grown produce in school lunch programs.
"We are not able to get it into the cafeteria," said Kirk Surry, coordinator for the South Maui School Gardens Project.
Surry said his students are allowed to taste fruits and vegetables as they pick them, or enjoy samples from a cooking demonstration in the classroom, but that lunchtime remained strictly off-limits.
South Maui School Gardens Project coordinator Kirk Surry explains how to pick carrots to Kihei Elementary School kindergartners.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
"We'll make a little simple salad in the garden, show them how to make their own dressing and serve it up right there, and that's allowed, but we can't, at this point, get it into the lunch program," he said.
Maui District Health Officer Dr. Lorrin Pang said that was unfortunate.
"It has been widely shown that you will encourage more sensible eating if the kid had a hand in growing it," he said. "They're more likely to eat what they grow, and (long term) they're more likely to eat the kind of thing they grew."
He and other advocates of gardening programs hope that bills pending before state lawmakers could make it possible for produce from school gardens to be served in public school cafeterias, including creating a new system for them to be certified as meeting food safety standards. (See related story - Proposed legislation could ease process)
But Glenna Owens, School Food Services Branch director for the state Department of Education, said certification was only one issue, and even if the gardens were certified, it would remain difficult to use them in school lunch programs.
The purpose of school gardens "is to relate to curriculum," she said. "It's not to provide acreage for farming, to supply the cafeteria with food."
Because Hawaii public schools receive funds through the U.S. Department of Agriculture School Lunch Program, they must meet "very rigid" federal rules for the food they serve in cafeterias, she noted.
Those include requirements that all the ingredients meet USDA certification standards, that there are exactly the right number of portions for all the students being served, and that every recipe meets standardized nutritional requirements, Owens said.
Each menu is carefully planned under the supervision of a dietitian to deliver a specific amount of nutrients in each serving, she said. A carrot from a school garden isn't tested to quantify its nutritional values; therefore, if a cafeteria simply added it to a recipe, it would throw off the calibrated nutritional content of the dish.
"The likelihood that it would be incorporated into a recipe that's standardized would be a 'no,' " she said.
Other issues with garden-fresh produce include:
* Portions. "If we have a school garden, and the harvest is enough for 20 students, but 80 students will be eating, how do you select which 20 students will get food from the school garden?" Owens asked.
* Liability. "If a child gets sick, a parent will come back to the garden," she said.
* Time and convenience. The produce now used by cafeteria managers arrives cleaned, prepared and ready to use, she noted. "From a school garden, he won't be getting that."
She said there were other things schools could do with the produce they grow in gardens, such as sharing it in the classroom, taking it home to parents or selling it in a farm stand.
"I think the bonus could be to make money for the school. There could be a fundraising opportunity," she said. "The consideration for the cafeteria shouldn't be at the top of the list."
But at least one Maui cafeteria manager said she would welcome the opportunity to use produce from the garden.
"At this time, school food services is not allowing us to use any of it," said Patti Kuwaye, cafeteria manager for Lokelani Intermediate School. "Even if we're cooking it, they still won't let us use it, which is kind of a bummer - I would love to use the fresh produce in there, at least to augment what we have already."
When she was working at a different school, Kuwaye said, she saw that children who were served produce from the garden ate more vegetables. A kindergarten project to grow garden cress for cafeteria salads dramatically improved students' eating habits, she said.
"Just because of that, they became salad-eaters from kindergarten through 6th grade," she said. "Once they started, they continued."
Pang said research supports Kuwaye's observation that children are not only more likely to eat the vegetables they helped grow but are more likely to continue eating those kinds of vegetables for years afterwards.
Any restrictions on using garden produce in cafeterias comes from the Department of Education or USDA - not from the state Department of Health, Pang said, noting that many private schools already use fruits and vegetables from the garden in their lunch programs.
He said food-borne illnesses are not more of a health concern in school gardens than in commercially farmed produce, and as long as the food is properly cleaned and prepared, it did not pose a greater risk. Carefully tended organic school gardens may even be better in terms of food safety than large, industrialized farms, he added.
"They think it's a health issue, but it's not really," Pang said.
"I can guarantee the personal care and attention we give to our garden is much safer than any commercial farm out there," he said.
Kuwaye said the menu at Lokelani Intermediate currently includes a serving of dairy, protein, vegetable, fruit and starch with every meal. A recent lunch included teri chicken fried noodles, canned peaches, salad and a fruit muffin.
While the school's small garden currently isn't producing enough fruits and vegetables to supply a salad bar, Kuwaye said if the rules were changed she would love to start using some of the fresh herbs being grown by students. She said she could easily add Italian seasonings like basil, marjoram and oregano to a tomato sauce, or Asian flavors like lemongrass, cilantro and fresh ginger to a stir fry.
"Right now we don't use that many herbs because of the cost, and if we do get them they're dried, while the fresh ones taste better, so there's more of a chance the kids would eat it," she said.
Owens, the DOE food services chief, said she wouldn't rule out Kuwaye's proposal. But she said schools would have to take a number of steps before they could use even herbs in their menus, including getting the garden USDA certified and meeting other criteria.
"There are a lot of variables into that, for me to be speculating, 'Oh absolutely,' " she said. "If spaghetti was on the menu, and there was enough basil to put in, and if everything would be in place, like I said, that could be a consideration."
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at email@example.com.