Creating a self-sustainable food system in Hawai‘i has been on our minds for a while. It almost seems preposterous that our economy could collapse without the apron strings of the mainland while we have acres and acres of farmland and a rural community to support it. Grow Some Good has been working on building the sustainability model one Maui kid at a time, creating successful school gardens and supporting them with curriculum, coordinators, resources, and volunteers. This year the nonprofit is celebrating 10 years of being intimately involved with the process since spearheading their first efforts at Kihei Elementary, but it hasn’t exactly been an easy walk in the garden.
Co-founder and director emeritus Kirk Surry and co-founder Susan Wyche were asked to author a chapter in the book Thinking Like an Island: Navigating a Sustainable Future in Hawai‘i published by University of Hawai‘i Press. In their chapter titled “It Takes A Village: Reflections of Building an Island School Garden,” they really broke it down. Mistakes were made, but they were overcome.
“They invited Susan and I to write a chapter on our learning curve on establishing school gardens on the island using limited resources to start the movement, basically,” explains Surry. “This was all springing out of the fact that we were volunteers with South Maui Sustainability and we felt like we were just preaching to the choir. All the people we were needed to reach were not listening, were not coming to the meetings, and were not participating. Then we got that request to install the raised beds at Kihei Elementary. Once the kids got involved, we realized that now we were able to reach more deeply into the family connections and reach a whole mass of people that we were not able to reach before.”
That spark ignited a movement, and a nonprofit ten years in the making that has dedicated itself to kids, curriculum, and growing food. The chapter goes on to chronicle several unforseen hiccups in their plans, each time having to regroup and look for another breakthrough.
“So that chapter is about trial and error experience,” says Surry. “Basically we started out borrowing other people’s models of building the school garden program and handing it over to parents and teachers to run it, but we knew right away that that wasn’t going to work. We saw programs come and go with a lot of money up front, but then there was no plan for sustaining them. We knew that if we walked away that one parent leaving or a change of administration would kill the program.”
That meant that things needed to change to ensure the program’s longevity. “Over the past few years we have gone back into sustainability programs with each individual school with our goal getting to a fifty-fifty agreement so that we are meeting 50 percent of costs and they are meeting the other 50 percent of the cost,” says Surry. “Whether that is from part-time teaching positions to help us offset some of the cost of managing the programs or just covering the hard cost associated with running the programs. I don’t think we will ever step out completely. We have had people say, ‘Why don’t you institutionalize these programs, isn’t that the end goal?’ But I don’t think it is. Because institutions drop the ball a lot. Priorities shift. We don’t ever want priorities to shift away from this work. We have to keep showing up and proving the value.”
One of the ways to look at value is participation. Grow Some Good tracks the gardens at Kihei, Pomaika‘i, and Pu‘u Kukui Elementary Schools where they have 100 percent participation. That means all grade levels are participating. In total, Grow Some Good manages 10 school garden programs and serves more than 3,500 students.
“My vision is that we continue to expand to more schools on Maui,” says Grow Some Good co-founder and executive director Kathy Becklin. “We will be working with Maui School Garden Network because they are in many schools. There are some other interesting things coming up. We will continue to train and educate our coordinators where we can provide their expertise to the schools. We are also at the state level starting to work with the farm to cafeteria movement so I am hoping that we get a couple of pilot schools at least to get going. We want to explore what can we grow in our school gardens that can then be served in the cafeteria.”
The Grow Some Good projects at Princess Nahienaena Elementary and Lahaina Intermediate have been important because they are feeding into Lahainaluna High School’s successful Future Farmers of America program led by Keith Ideoka. Ideoka and his students have volunteered at the other schools programs, and knowing it will contribute to the next generation.
“As far as working with the school gardens we help with donating plants, participating community work day, volunteering – our high school students go help,” says Ideoka. “We help build structures like box gardens. We have been doing this since the school garden movement started. We haven’t seen students come up yet from the gardens at Nahienaena or Lahaina Intermediate. I haven’t seen or noticed any positive effects yet from students coming from those gardens, but I know it will be here. I’m looking at students having an early interest and early focus on what they want to learn about.”
Lahainaluna’s resources are extensive and crucial to our sustainability as a whole.
“Our ag program is one of the largest and most diverse in the state,” says Ideoka. “We have crop production, corn and other vegetable crops, planter boxes, pastures for livestock, and also and aquaculture lab with fish, tilapia. We have two agriculture teachers. We have the most land available for us to use for agriculture operations. We also have a Future Farmers of America program. We have a chapter that is one of the few left in Maui County – we have Lahainaluna, Moloka‘i, and Lokelani – that is a national student leadership organization; they do competitions, fundraising, community service.
Lokelani Intermediate in South Maui has an ag class integrating with science. Seventh graders Elizabeth Owens and Tobin Roof recently earned first place in a statewide Future Farmers of America Career Development Event, while student Marsenton Lau placed third in the Prepared Public Speaking CDE. These students were competing against high schools across the state.
“We see these school gardens as the future of our ag program,” says Ideoka. “For the students that are already interested in gardening, our goal up here at the high school is take them to the next level. If they are interested in a career in farming, that is their choice. We want to support and be supporters of agriculture in Hawai‘i. The school garden coordinators are essential to the success for the gardens. They have curriculum for the teachers and maintain the garden. The teachers don’t have time to maintain the garden.”
It may sound counterintuitive, but with their classroom plans and student load, the teachers are not the ones to keep gardens going. Grow Some Good has been at the forefront of garden strategy and maintenance, constructing their system from the dirt up. Figuring out legislation, budgets, and the best practices for getting school’s a coordinator for their gardens, critical to success. Current legislation in the works is HB1102 establishing and appropriating funds for an Agriculture Education Coordinator position within the UH Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
The next hurdle the state is working on is clearing the way for a successful garden to cafeteria movement.
“We will be having the first school garden to cafeteria connection coming, it’s really exciting,” says Surry. “We haven’t been able to do that up until now. We have already worked with the Department of Health so that we can do the pop up cafe in the gardens. Now it is becoming an official part of the school lunch program. Kids have been asking for that for a long time. When the pilot programs finish up they will open it up to the rest of the islands. So we can apply and get funding to meet the requirements. We just had to come up with a system. People in the DOE were nervous about it. Obviously we want to take every measure we can to prevent with foodborne illness and we have been able to address those issues.”
At Lahainaluna High School Ideoka would like to address getting their ag program to wholesale.
“It is a goal,” says Ideoka.”We cannot do that yet because of the regulations but that is a goal I am working towards. We have to be certified. So we are working on that. Because our programs are so large and diverse we don’t want to limit ourselves. We want to be able to serve at the cafeterias and sell wholesale. I am certified as a grower but not as a wholesaler. We have to be ready for inspection, and then pass the checklist.”
All the processes of the garden are teaching students valuable hands on skills. Surry says they teach profit and loss concepts as soon as the student are at the multiplication and division levels. Ultimately they want kids to know this could work as a career.
“We definitely want to be inspiring future farmers and help them to see farming in a different way,” says Surry. “It can be a profitable business and it can be a viable way to support your family. Looking at ways to create added value products and see different models of farming than just growing the produce. It is not just about growing food to put on your plate, it’s a way to feed your whole family.”
While many of our farmers reach retirement age, the next step is to connect these young growers with their experience. University of Hawai’i Maui campus also has the Sustainable Living Institute of Maui.
“There are several organizations out there that are working hard to grow the next generation of farmers that grow food for us to be self sustaining, food independent, food sovereign,” says Ideoka. “There is the farming program at UH Maui, and Hawai‘i Farmers Union United has the Farmers Apprenticeship and Mentorship program. A lot of our kids at Lahainaluna that graduate from our agriculture program go to UH Hilo and graduate from that program.”
Grow Some Good has been growing the community, reaching families, students, teachers. and parents alike. Making that connection with kids and growing food, and seeing the joy they had for eating what they grew really brought it home for them.
“I think it is critical to be in the cafeterias,” says Becklin. “We have seen the state take the initiative to put better and more local foods on our kids’ plates – things they like to eat and hopefully get more nutritious over time. That is what it is all about.”
Grow Some Good will celebrate their 10 year anniversary at their Annual Taste of School Gardens March 9, where local chefs will use locally grown garden ingredients to create a school garden inspired menu. For more information or to buy tickets go to Growsomegood.org.
Images courtesy of Grow Some Good