In Hawaii, gardens and cafeterias don't mix

In Hawaii, school gardens are growing in popularity, but using the produce can be problematic.

By Paul King, Editorial Director

I’ve never met Glenna Owens, who is the School Food Services Branch director for the Hawaii Department of Education.  But based on comments she apparently made to The Maui News last week, if I did meet her I would be tempted to suggest to her that she consider her words more carefully before she speaks.

In an article entitled, “Cafeteria conflicts for school gardens,” Owens enumerated that reasons why food grown in the gardens set up by the South Maui School Gardens Project can’t be used in school cafeterias. Her reasoning seemed to reflect a bias against school foodservice, which to me appears odd coming from someone who heads up the foodservice brand of the DOE.

A couple of her arguments against the use of garden produce made no sense, while others were contradicted by other suggestions she made. For example, according to the news article, she said that because produce coming from the gardens would not have been tested to measure its nutrition value. So using a vegetable from the garden in a school recipe might throw off the dish’s nutritional profile.

This confused me. First, I didn’t know that each vegetable or fruit served in schools is tested for its nutritional content. That seems like an awful lot of work for any government agency to do. Second, I didn’t know that the nutritional profile of a vegetable is affected all that much by whether it’s grown on a farm or a school garden.

Her second argument was, according to this quote from the article: “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?” I just scratched my head at that one.

Finally, she raised the liability issue: “If a child gets sick, a parent will come back to the garden.” I could almost accept that argument, until I read further, where Owens suggests that other things that could be done with the produce are sharing it in the classroom, taking it home to parents or selling it in a farm stand.

Why, I wonder, would there be liability from a foodborne illness only if the produce were consumed in the cafeteria? Wouldn’t there be as much—or more—liability for the district if food sold at a farm stand made someone sick?

If you read further through the article, you will see that school foodservice managers do not agree with Owens. I doubt that bothers her very much. It seems that legislation is the answer, and there are at least a couple of bills before the Hawaii state legislature that could address this issue.

The major goals of school foodservice are making school food healthier and convincing students to eat it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that when kids have a hand in growing the food they are more likely to eat it. If getting school garden food into cafeterias would encourage students to eat more healthfully, I should think Glenna Owens should be doing all she can to make that road smoother, instead of blocking the path.