Pandemic Jumpstarts Hawaiʻi Farm to School and Food Access Programs

When schools closed across the nation in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hawai‘i Farm to School Hui leaders sprang into action in service to communities across Hawai‘i.

“The relationships built and regional coordination provided by Hui members have been crucial during this time of crisis in helping meet real needs for food access, teacher professional development, and student engagement in home-based learning,” said Hawaiʻi Farm to School Hui Coordinator, Lydi Bernal. “Their heart for Hawai‘i’s keiki and communities is huge.” 

Here are some inspiring stories from farm to school movement leaders across the islands!

Image: National Farm to School Network. The three core elements of farm to school are: 1) school gardens and farms, 2) procurement/school food, and 3) education.

Procurement / School Food

Mālama Kauaʻi Taps USDA Funding to Connect Local Farmers with Families

Image: Mālama Kauaʻi

Kauaʻi farmers found themselves in a dire situation when harvests were plentiful and their main sales outlets, farmers markets and restaurants, abruptly closed. Fortunately, Mālama Kauaʻi had already begun working with farmers, training and qualifying them to participate as vendors in the Hawai‘i Department of Education’s ‘Aina Pono farm to school program. Executive Director, Megan Fox said the pandemic response gave them an opportunity to scale up an already strong community supported agriculture (CSA) network on Kauaʻi. “We’ve expanded the CSA concept to a much larger program,” said Fox.

In order to help sustain the local agriculture community and provide much needed food assistance to families during COVID, Mālama Kauaʻi submitted a grant proposal to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) “Food Box to Family” Program. Within 10 days of receiving $235,200 in USDA funds, the organization was distributing local produce CSA bags to 1,000 families per week at five school sites across the island. The outreach also included more than 150 home deliveries to families and kūpuna without transportation to reach the produce pick-up spots. 

According to Joëll Edwards, Mālama Kauaʻi Farm to School Hui Project Manager and Keiki Food Access Coordinator, they’ve been down this road before. The organization responded with emergency food assistance in April 2018 when 52 inches of rain in 24 hours caused 17 landslides on Kaua‘i, shutting off parts of the community from the rest of the island. “When COVID hit, it was kind of like muscle memory,” said Edwards. “We jumped back into it and applied what we had learned to other regions of the island.”

Mālama Kauaʻi recently received USDA funding for a second phase of food distribution and shifted to new sites in anticipation of schools reopening. New locations include Common Ground, Anahola Marketplace (Hawai‘i Homestead Community), Westside Christian Center, War Memorial Convention Center (County Building), and Kōloa Public Library. For more information visit Mālama Kauaʻi’s Keiki Food Access page

Hawai‘i Department of Education School Food Services Branch Responds with Aloha

Image: Koloa Elementary School

Over 17 weeks of operation from March 23 through July 17, 2020, the Hawaiʻi State Department of Education (HIDOE) Grab-and-Go school meals program provided over 1.3 million school meals for breakfast and lunch to children ages 18 or younger at nearly 80 public schools and community locations on Oʻahu, Kauaʻi, Maui, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, and Hawaiʻi Island.

“The Grab-and-Go meals program was a tremendous effort that ensured that our keiki would receive nutritional meals during the spring school closure and summer months in our communities with the highest need,” Superintendent Dr. Christina Kishimoto said. “We send our utmost gratitude to the hundreds of our dedicated school cafeteria, support, administrative and food service staff statewide for working tirelessly since March, many without taking a break, to keep our keiki fed during this time of economic uncertainty. We also thank our many community partners who donated food, snacks, drinks, containers, personal protective equipment, and distribution sites to help us reach more keiki, especially in remote areas.”

The program provided free breakfasts and lunches to all children 18 and younger regardless of their enrollment at public, private, or homeschools or eligibility for free and reduced-price meals, with on-site distribution conducted through drive-thru and walk-up pick-ups. Program funding was provided by USDA.

Learn more about HIDOE’s commitment to improving school food through increased scratch-cooking and local food procurement via the ‘Aina Pono farm to school initiative at www.ainapono.org.