Dishing it up: New menu premieres at Kohala Complex cafeteria to students’ delight

  • Kohala Elementary third grader Ascher Blanco gives two thumbs up to the new lunch dish at his school cafeteria. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    Kohala Elementary third grader Ascher Blanco gives two thumbs up to the new lunch dish at his school cafeteria. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
  • Priscilla Gala shows Greg Christian fresh loaves of bread made that morning by the cafeteria’s baker, Sarah Bulo-Fijii. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    Priscilla Gala shows Greg Christian fresh loaves of bread made that morning by the cafeteria’s baker, Sarah Bulo-Fijii. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
  • 3rd grader Terongomau Kawe enjoys the fresh oranges on her lunch plate. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    3rd grader Terongomau Kawe enjoys the fresh oranges on her lunch plate. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
  • Milk is one of the largest commodities wasted in the school cafeteria each day. As part of the program run by Greg Christian, quantities are measured daily in clear containers, along with food waste in trash cans, to record how much is wasted so smaller quantities can be ordered in the future. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    Milk is one of the largest commodities wasted in the school cafeteria each day. As part of the program run by Greg Christian, quantities are measured daily in clear containers, along with food waste in trash cans, to record how much is wasted so smaller quantities can be ordered in the future. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
  • Third-grader Madeline Buczyna digs into the new chicken dish with brown rice and stir-fried vegetables. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
    Third-grader Madeline Buczyna digs into the new chicken dish with brown rice and stir-fried vegetables. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

KOHALA — Teriyaki chicken with steamed brown rice and a medley of stir-fried local vegetables sounds more like a dish served at Roy’s in Waikoloa Resort than a school cafeteria.

But last Tuesday, the 700 diners were elementary, middle and high school students at Kohala Complex.

The lunch is part of a new menu introduced at the school on Jan. 9. Priscilla Gala, services manager there, has a new “helper” who has worked with her team to develop new menus, cook healthier food and reduce waste — all while saving money.

Greg Christian is a food expert from Beyond Green Partners who has helped schools across the country with similar challenges. He has been at Kohala Complex since Nov 2. Made possible through private funding from Dorrance Family Foundation, Ulupono Initiative, Kokua Foundation, Kaiser and others, hard work has already paid off with rave reviews from the students.

“The chicken tastes really sweet and juicy. It’s better than the food we used to eat here,” third-grader Terongomau Kawe said. “The stir-fry is really good,” her classmate Madeline Buczyna chimed in.

Ascher Blanco showed how much he liked it last Tuesday by giving Principal Danny Garcia two thumbs up.

“We don’t usually have the vegetables like this,” he said. “The chicken is super good this time.”

Gala has seen improvements behind the scenes too.

“Greg has helped a lot getting us equipment we needed to upgrade the kitchen,” she said. “We’re cooking more home cooked food rather than processed food. He’s also helped me run the kitchen better. We’re now ordering more local fruits and vegetables from the islands.”

Her staff is working like a well-oiled machine now, preparing 200 breakfasts, 500 lunches and 100 snacks daily. So far, they have new 1-week breakfast and snack menus, and a 3-week lunch menu.

To provide healthier food, the cafeteria’s head baker, Sarah Bulo-Fujii, has replaced pre-made bread with homemade zucchini, ulu and banana breads for the after-school program. Juice is served once a week now instead of daily, and has been replaced by whole fruit and water.

“I feel better because it will make them full instead of buying pre-made rice krispies and juice,” Gala said. “We’re pretty proud to be the model for the state. We’re already ahead because we’ve learned so much with everyone working together.”

The shift away from canned and prepared foods has been significant.

“We’re buying tons of fresh food. Instead of frozen or canned foods there’s fresh broccoli, carrots, zucchini, garlic, pineapple and oranges just today that we’ve prepared,” Christian said. “We’re buying local food from within the state of Hawaii. We have to get three bids for everything, and we’re following all DOE purchasing protocols.”

Training and continued education for the kitchen staff has been instrumental.

“In the past it was more about compliance and sanitation, not cooking. Sanitation was first and food second. Now we’re trying to put fresh food first, be compliant, serve safe food and be in budget,” Christian said. “My promise to them is that we will do this and save them money.”

Waste is one of the biggest places where money has been lost, until now.

“We’re measuring waste on a lot of different waste streams, such as milk and food waste, that wasn’t done before,” he said. “If the garbage can is full of food we’re doing something wrong. Either we aren’t making the food right, it shouldn’t be on the menu or we’re giving them too much. This is common in America.”

Christian and the staff discovered recently that thousands of dollars worth of milk was being wasted each year.

“Now we offer water as well, so there’s $30,000 of milk money we found right in front of us that can now be used to buy better food, like grass-fed beef,” he said.

But there are other types of food waste.

“There’s also plate waste, kitchen scrap waste and food that goes bad. We now weigh to measure this daily which will continue moving forward,” Christian said. “We’re already wasting two-thirds less milk in two weeks,” he said.

According to USDA rules, the same portion of rice, meat and vegetables must be served to all students, no matter whether they are in kindergarten or high school. Christian is looking for ways to remedy this type of waste.

“We’re working on sourcing the right size chicken thigh for little kids,” he said. “It’s all built for the food manufacturers to win. Tackling that is still a problem.”

Another problem can be overproduction.

“To get cooks to make the exact amount of food needed is really hard, everywhere from restaurants to colleges,” he said. “So we weigh the leftovers and come up with a ratio: we made 500 lunches and went through 150 pounds of vegetables and had 50 pounds leftover, so the next time we will make 100 pounds.”

Another goal is to help source foods grown and raised on Hawaii Island. Currently none of the local farms are GAP certified — a DOE requirement — so the school must instead work with distributors from within the state.

“It takes a lot of insurance but there’s one farmer in North Hawaii who’s thinking about becoming a distributor and bringing the food to us from farms in the area and his own,” Christian said.

The cafeteria’s large supply of canned foods, frozen foods and paper plates is shrinking.

“We’re gonna start buying local beef from Big Island Beef in the next two weeks, and shell-on eggs instead of frozen egg product,” he said. “Instead of paper plates we’re going back to the real plates that have been in storage.”

Christian also measures progress through numbers on purchase, waste logs and rates. His staff on the mainland write monthly reports and make sure the school hits all the deliverables they promised. A case study will be completed by June.

After three months training staff in the kitchen, Christian will continue visiting Kohala Complex occasionally through the end of the school year.

KES Principal Garcia has seen positive changes.

“In two weeks, I’ve already seen more fruits and vegetables being eaten. The kitchen staff has been updated with best practices such as measurements, portions and combination of ingredients, exploring the local palate with seasonings, and engaging the students and teachers,” he said. “This is as important as teaching the kids math, reading and writing. Making them aware of what they’re eating and where it comes from will, in the long run, provide for healthier bodies. We also want to be in a school/community partnership to help the local farmers. If we can make it happen here it could significantly impact Hawaii for positive economic gain.”

Looking back, Christian paused to reflect on what has been accomplished thus far.

“I think there’s a lot of hope and it’s totally possible to serve scratch-cooked local food that kids will eat that can be prepared here. The school system is poised to help heal the local food system in Hawaii since they buy so much. If the attention stays as strong from the Governor’s office, there’s no turning back.”

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