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HILO, Hawaii (AP) — At Laupahoehoe Community Public Charter School, kids get excited about purple carrots.
Purple carrots are attention-grabbers, so in a sense this is unsurprising. But at the charter school there's an extra element of thrill. Laupahoehoe's students are involved in every aspect of growing the veggies, from planting tiny seeds in the school garden to harvesting crunchy snacks. The purple carrots are all their own.
"There's something really special about pulling carrots out of the ground," school garden coordinator Jenny Bach said. "It's been so fun to see their (the kids') reaction to the food they're eating."
Gardens like Laupahoehoe's are part of a broader farm-to-school effort on Hawaii Island, one that is mirrored in schools across the country, The Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported Sunday.
Programs emphasize procuring local food, using gardens as classrooms, and helping students develop healthy eating habits and understanding of where their food comes from.
Because it fosters ties to the land and interest in agriculture, in addition to supporting local farms, farm-to-school has been named a key component in addressing food security and self-sufficiency problems (more than 80 percent of Hawaii's food supply is imported). And it just got a boost of support from the state.
SB 376, a bill establishing a farm-to-school program within Hawaii's Department of Agriculture and a full-time coordinator to oversee it, unanimously passed both legislative chambers this week and now awaits a signature from Gov. David Ige.
It's the next step in strengthening what is already a robust and growing farm-to-school network on the islands, and one that current educators and coordinators say will help with long-term strategic planning as they work to expand their efforts.
"This is kind of a big deal that this got passed — we started working on this eight years ago," said Nancy Redfeather, director of the Hawaii Island School Garden Network.
"What the Department of Agriculture position will do, which hasn't been done yet, is to convene stakeholders across agencies . to provide more informed policymaking," said Lydi Morgan Bernal, who coordinates the statewide Hawaii Farm to School and School Garden Hui.
Redfeather's network, coordinated by The Kohala Center in Waimea, and funded in part by Oahu's Ulupono Initative, is one of a dozen programs within the hui.
SB 376 was put forth by a group that included Hawaii Island Sens. Russell Ruderman and Josh Green.
"They really believed in the program and the future of the program," Redfeather said.
"Linking farmers, distributors, and schools — that direct connection has yet to be facilitated in a big way," Bernal said. "That's really the next step."
Hawaii Island has been a leader in establishing farm-to-school programs. The school garden at Waimea Middle Public Charter School, for example, celebrates its 10th birthday this year. Today it is also used as a demonstration garden for the garden network's teacher training program.
Eighty-five teachers have gone through the program, which was established in 2010 thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant.
"It focuses on how to be a really good organic gardener," Redfeather explained. Before her current position, she was a teacher for 20 years and a school garden teacher for 10 years.
"So I have been on the other end, too," she said. "Hawaii's keiki really learn best with hands-on instruction."
There are currently 63 schools on Hawaii Island with gardens. The network Redfeather directs is the longest-running of the other members of the hui, and was established after a 2007 study by the Rocky Mountain Institute addressing the matter of food security on Hawaii Island reported that school gardens were a way to involve younger generations in the local food movement.
But there were other benefits, too.
"School gardens are more than just spaces set aside for growing plants," the study's authors wrote. As outdoor classrooms, gardens helped students learn the ins and outs of agriculture. They gave children chances to apply classwork to the real world.
The state Department of Health and Department of Education administer an annual safety and wellness survey in all public (non-charter) schools. Last year, 76 percent of those who responded said they had a school garden used for classroom instruction.
"One school did a project where they gathered family recipes from kids and then grew those plants in the garden," Redfeather said. At the end of the year, students harvested their plants, cooked them into a dinner for their families, and published a recipe book.
"It's really a holistic inclusion of improvements in school food, and the educational component goes along with it," Bernal said.
SP 376 initially proposed coordinator positions in both the DOA and the DOE. Having a statewide education coordinator is still important, Bernal said, as is the eventual goal of getting a DOE coordinator in each district.
"It takes a whole school community," she said.
And as schools like Laupahoehoe's indicate, the efforts pay off. Laupahoehoe was in the first wave of the USDA's farm-to-school planning grants. The garden program is now incorporated into its yearly budget.
Elementary students have garden class each week.
High-schoolers in culinary and agriculture programs use the garden, too.
Each month there is a local-food lunch, which Bach says she hopes to expand to once a week next year.
Four days a week, students get recess snacks that are 100 percent sourced from Hawaii Island farmers. Sometimes it's sweet corn, sometimes tangerines, sometimes beets.
The beets took some getting used to, Bach said, but one of the students' favorite snacks is broccoli.
"Broccoli with a little bit of salt," she said. "It was a total surprise to me."
Information from: Hawaii Tribune-Herald, http://www.hawaiitribune-herald.com/