Vendor sought for ground, stew beef for Oahu, Hawaii Island schools

  • Sheila Tobias scans a Kahakai Elementary School student's lunch card on Thursday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Drake Neff prepares to serve lunch Thursday at Kahakai Elementary School. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Lunch is served Thursday at Kahakai Elementary School. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Rizzalen Bedar, Mary Hawley and Drake Neff serve lunch Thursday at Kahakai Elementary School. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Looking for beef? So is the Department of Education.

The state agency’s School Food Services Branch is on the hunt for a vendor to provide ground beef and stew beef for Hawaii Island and Oahu schools as the department continues its efforts to get more local food on kids’ lunch plates.

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The request for proposals, released last month, is aimed both at finding a vendor who can provide beef for Oahu’s 157 schools and Hawaii Island’s 42 schools, and promoting the goals of the Aina Pono Farm to School Program: namely improving childhood health and supporting local agriculture.

Every day, the School Food Services Branch serves about 100,000 meals statewide through the USDA’s school lunch and breakfast programs, according to state documents. A federal “Buy American” policy requires schools to purchase domestically produced foods “to the maximum extent practicable.” That policy is localized even more for Hawaii, where school food authorities are required to source foods from Hawaii when possible.

For beef to be considered “local,” said farm-to-school coordinator Dexter Kishida, cattle must be raised, finished and processed in Hawaii. Kishida works in the DOE School Food Services Branch.

Already, public schools in other parts of the state are having success serving up local beef.

“We have successful solicitations for Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kauai for beef,” said Kishida. “One hundred percent of the beef on those islands will be from local ranches.”

For Hawaii Island and Oahu, however, Kishida said there isn’t enough production to satisfy the demand, saying statewide they’re looking for 1.5 million pounds of beef for 2019.

Currently, he added, Y. Hata &Co. Ltd. distributes beef from Hawaii Beef Producers for Hawaii Island ground beef as well as non-domestic stew beef.

And this recent solicitation makes it clear the goal is to not only feed hungry kids but also achieve the goals of the Aina Pono Farm to School program, which continues to champion the use and inclusion of local ingredients in school meals.

On Hawaii Island, Kishida said, about 30 percent of the branch’s purchases are local, including milk. Other islands have local purchase rates closer to 20 percent, he said.

That focus on local ag is reflected in the solicitation for local beef products. Under its evaluation criteria, a full 20 out of 100 points are reserved for scoring how a proposal helps meet the program’s goals to improve childhood health, support local agriculture and increase the state’s food security.

Jill Mattos, general manager for Hawaii Beef Producers, said they’re big supporters of the DOE’s efforts to boost the inclusion of locally sourced foods.

“It’s huge,” she said of DOE’s efforts.

Not only does it offer students a sense of pride in knowing their breakfasts and lunches are made with ingredients from here at home, it helps keep dollars at home too.

“And with those dollars,” Mattos said, “you’re keeping people employed at home in our backyard.”

Jim Denight, principal of Kahakai Elementary School, likewise said the DOE’s push to get local foods on kids’ plates is one he supports.

“Any time we can give the kids fresh food, and it’s local food, that’s a plus,” he said.

Kishida too said the department expects to continue cultivating relationships with local farmers and ranchers.

“Approximately 12,000 pounds of produce is needed per day,” he said. “It will be essential to grow with the farmers and ranchers.”

He added they continue to look for ways to work with local farmers and ranchers, referencing Aina Pono’s Harvest of the Month program as an example.

That program started last year and highlights one local crop every month in school meals.

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Last month, for example, participating schools served Okinawan Sweet Potato Pie, putting the local crop on plates in more than 200 cafeterias throughout the state.

A press release at the time said it marked the first time students’ meals featured Okinawan sweet potatoes from Hawaii Island.