Food trucks teach students business, life skills

  • Kealakehe High School student Dannia Andrade paints the HELP truck at the school. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Kealakehe High School Culinary teacher Karen Sheff, right, and students Kasey Silva Barawis and Kai Kale prepare lunch in the HELP truck. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • The Kealakehe High School HELP truck is a collaboration between the art, automotive and culinary departments. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • The Pono Grindz food truck serves customers at Kua Bay.

  • Kealakehe High School teacher Karen Sheff, left, hands lunch to student Ninna Delos Santos from the school’s Healthy Eating, Living Pono (HELP) food truck. (Photos by Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Kealakehe High School students are connecting the dots between the classroom and real-life thanks to a public-private partnership at Kua Bay.

The popular North Kona beach is home to Pono Grindz, a healthy eating food truck that opened there last December providing hungry beachgoers tasty food and pupils hands-on learning — inside the classroom and vehicle.


“It showed me how it relates to the real world. It made me think, ‘I can do this, it’s not so hard,’” said Angelita Camacho, a high school junior who recently apprenticed with Pono Grindz and Chef Mike Haren. “It’s so much different from the book — it’s hands-on, it’s the best way to learn.”

Chef Mike, who is also a chef at a private club, and wife, Serene Newman, lead up the truck that was recently given approval by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to continue operating through Dec. 6, 2018, under a program with the department’s Division of State Parks and Kealakehe High School’s Culinary Program Healthy Eating Living Pono (HELP) project.

A special use permit allows for the public-private partnership to operate at a cost of $40 per month, said DLNR Spokeswoman Deborah Ward.

“The hope is to keep this going for many years to come. It’s an awesome partnership between a private entity and public school and the state,” said Karen Sheff, Kealakehe High School’s Culinary Arts and Public Health Services teacher, who’s been working on the project for years. That project, Healthy Eating, Living Pono, also includes a BOE-owned food truck that’s close to hitting the road.

Getting the food truck partnership up and running took years and involved students from the get-go, said Sheff. Working with Chef Mike, also a part-time teacher at the school, students get exposure to every aspect of running a food truck business — from product development, marketing and menu creation to customer service, logistics and the not-so-fun-but-ever-important data crunching.

“We built the whole truck with the students,” Chef Mike said. “It just happened. I wasn’t planning to do this.”

While it may seem simple to put some food items on a menu and sell away to hungry beachgoers who have no other choice unless they’ve packed their own food and libations, it takes a lot of trial and error and “ups and downs” to understand how to run a successful business that operates in the black, not the red.

And, that’s something that’s not too easy to learn from a book — it takes actual doing, said Sheff.

“You have to make teaching relevant. You have to create tangible learning experiences and opportunities, and I really feel the only way to do that is to create a real-life business that the kids have to buy-in to,” she explained.

“The only thing lacking in school is teaching them how to make money,” said Chef Mike.

He also recognizes the importance of hands-on learning, especially for some students who don’t take as well to traditional classroom teaching methods, and the impact a good teacher can have on the future.

“When you’re younger and pick up a good mentor who cares that can give you a push and reinforcement all the way through,” he said. “A great teacher led me to here.”

Pono Grindz is open five days a week, serving up shave-ice, vegan and meat wraps, street tacos, New Jersey pork roll sandwiches and student-created specials at the site also known as the Maninowali Section of Kekaha Kai State Park. Coconut oil is used for all items with the exception of the veggie wrap, which uses olive oil.

Hours are from around 10 a.m. to about a half-hour before sunset Thursday through Monday. The student-created specials, available when pupils are in school, are made at the Kealakehe High campus in the DOH-certified culinary arts kitchen and sold via the truck with proceeds going back to the culinary program.

Sheff’s students have the option to mentor with Chef Mike in the food truck or Julie Ziemelis, of Ziemelis Communications, to amp up social media and marketing. Eight are signed up to work at the food truck during the next month.

“It’s one-on-one time,” said Chef Mike about working with the students. “It’s great.”

Though the food truck at Kua Bay is the most visible component of the HELP effort, the project actually started off as an idea around 2014-15. By creating a Kealakehe High School student-run food truck, a program would be created to provide a hands-on means for learning for students in all departments of the Career Technical Education, which includes pupils in metal and auto shop, arts and graphics, culinary arts and physical education, said Sheff.

About a year later, a minibus — that needed a lot of work — was donated by Jack’s Tours for the project called HELP — Healthy Eating Living Pono. That food truck will be taken into the community to teach Kona more about healthy living as soon as it’s up-and-running smoothly and all permits are obtained.

“I want our community to be more akamai about healthy living,” Sheff said about the impetus for the community project.

Through the academic years, students in metal shop and auto shop have worked to refurbish the vehicle while the arts students went to work painting the bus and graphic arts students created wraps for the windows and doors. Culinary arts students have been working on menus and social media. All the students involved do so voluntarily through their Extended Learning Opportunity (ELO) period on Thursdays.

For the past few months, arts students have painted the bus in vibrant colors after drafting an array of ideas to align with the Health Eating Living Pono theme, ninth-grader Dannia Andrade said on a recent Thursday with her spray paint can in hand ready to add more flare to the vehicle.

“I wanted to make it look like an aloha bus,” said Andrade who came up with the design featuring a coconut tree, tiki, surfer, flowers, fruits and more, “because we’re in Hawaii.”

Senior May Kyaw said she enjoys taking part in the ELO food truck effort because it allows her to explore additional media like working with spray paint and on metal.

“It’s different materials,” she said. “In class, there’s only a certain set of materials.”


Fingers crossed, the brightly painted DOE truck is expected to be on the road in the coming weeks, said Sheff. That is so long as all issues can be worked out, including some electrical problems. Anyone willing to help out with electrical or mechanical work should contact Sheff at 640-5448.


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