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Recovery and resilience through Farm to School

The passage of Act 175 (2021) establishing the Hawaiʻi Farm to School Program within the Hawaiʻi Department of Education (HIDOE) is timely and opportune for Hawaii’s pandemic recovery and long-term resilience, most especially through the program’s aim to “accelerate garden and farm-based education for the State’s public school students.”

National movement For outdoor education

The increased use of learning gardens and farms on school campuses across Hawaiʻi plays a central role in protecting student health, recovering and advancing academic achievement, and strengthening social-emotional well-being. Over the past year and a half, thousands of schools across the country have begun to invest in outdoor learning, as noted by the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, which was co-founded in May 2020 by Green Schoolyards America and partners across more than forty states and six countries. The initiative seeks to “equitably improve learning, mental and physical health, and happiness for children and adults” through the increased use of outdoor educational spaces, which “reduce the burden on indoor classrooms while providing fresh air, hands-on learning opportunities, and the health benefits associated with increased access to nature.”

Nature’s healing benefits

Gardens and farms developed on school grounds serve as outdoor classrooms that help balance time spent indoors by students. A national study of nearly 20,000 participants revealed that spending two or more hours per week in nature — either all at once or cumulatively — is definitively linked with better health and well-being (White, 2019; 1). This association was found to be true regardless of people’s occupations, ethnic groups, chronic illnesses and disabilities, and whether from rich or poor areas. Interestingly, the authors recommend “developing possible weekly nature exposure guidelines comparable to those for physical activity.” Furthermore, a study conducted in Japan found that the spread of COVID-19 was nineteen times more likely to occur indoors than outdoors (2). While HIDOE’s COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidance for School Year 2021-22 instructs schools to “move activities, classes and meals outdoors when circumstances allow,” a more intentional and well-resourced effort must be made locally to increase outdoor education for Hawaii’s students (3).

A model for state investment in Farm to School

Farm to school programs holistically involve school gardens and farms, agriculture and nutrition education, and local school food procurement to improve student health, strengthen local economies, and expand food systems workforce development. Oregon is a model of state-level support for farm to school, where their legislature invests $10.2 million biannually in their Farm to School Program administered by the Oregon Department of Education. Hundreds of schools are supported through their farm to school grant program to purchase Oregon-grown or processed foods and provide garden and farm-based learning to students. Oregon’s farm to school movement is supported by full-time coordinators in their departments of education, agriculture, and Oregon State University, a statewide network, and fourteen regional hubs supporting local farm to school procurement and education efforts. Hawaii’s farm to school movement is poised for rapid expansion through investment in state and island-level networks and dedicated positions within HIDOE and the University of Hawai‘i.

Leveling up with ESSER III

HIDOE is in the process of finalizing spending plans for $412.3 million from the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER III) via the U.S. Department of Education, with an aim to “sustain safe school operations while meeting the academic, social, emotional and mental health needs of students resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.” (4). An investment of $5 million would support increased outdoor education through learning gardens and farms in direct alignment with the three areas of HIDOE’s ESSER III Educational Plan:

  1. Health & Safety: Develop infrastructure for outdoor education spaces on school campuses including learning gardens and farms.
  2. Accelerated Learning: Provide targeted professional development for teachers on the effective use of outdoor learning spaces.
  3. Social Emotional Learning: Fund school health support positions to manage outdoor learning spaces and integrate their use with core curriculum, social-emotional learning, and Nā Hopena A‘o.

Recommendations summary

May the strong foundations laid over the past decade of movement building blossom in the coming year through the following key actions by HIDOE, the Hawaiʻi State Legislature, and partners, and bear fruit for generations to come: 

  • Develop an outdoor learning plan as part of the broader Hawai‘i Farm to School Program to guide implementation and investment, including acceleration of garden and farm-based education for HIDOE students, and
  • Utilize ESSER III funds for school garden and farm infrastructure, teacher professional development, and personnel at the school, regional, and state levels.

Lydi Bernal is the Coordinator of the Hawai‘i Farm to School Hui with Hawai‘i Public Health Institute. Contact



(1) White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9, 7730 (2019). 

(2) Tommaso et al, 2020, references data from: Nishiura H, Oshitani H, Kobayashi T, et al. Closed environments facilitated secondary transmission of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). medRxiv [internet]. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press; 2020 [cited 2020 Aug 15]; :2020.02.28.20029272.

(3) Hawai‘i State Department of Education. “COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidance for School Year 2021-22.” Revised October 8, 2021. 

(4) Hawai‘i Department of Education. Accessed 4 December 2021.

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