Under the Sun
Food for thought, body and the local economy
SATURDAY mornings at the farmers market are mostly an adults-only affair with just a few children occasionally tagging along with their parents in the dash and bustle for fresh veggies, fruits and other foods.
A little boy wearing rubbah slippers about two inches past his heels flip-flopped behind his mother last weekend. He conveyed boredom and general unhappiness by impatiently fidgeting while she picked out bananas and watercress.
Then his nose caught the enticing aroma of sausages grilling at the North Shore Cattle Co. booth. He perked up and made a beeline over there, beckoning his mother to follow. I heard her tell him that the sausages were made from "cows" raised "near Haleiwa beach," where they often went picnicking.
That bit of information grabbed his interest -- almost as much as the fat, bun-enclosed "hot dog" he gobbled down, which he rated better than those at Costco and "way better" than the ones he had at school.
Fair or not, school lunches are notorious for being unappetizing.
My recollections from elementary school include such unsavory fare as "beef nibblets," a concoction of diced meat, corn, grayish peas and carrots suspended in a gluey sauce, macaroni and cheese veneered with a Day-Glo orange shell and scoops of alleged corned beef hash, a revolting mush of instant mashed potatoes speckled with purplish canned meat and invariably served with viscous pickled beets.
Intermediate school meals were even worse. Gravy soup, a fusion of leftover gravy and rice, was served as a "snack" option. In a nod to our host culture, a version of lau lau combined canned spinach with slabs of pork that, in a stunning display of culinary dysfunction, managed to be fatty and desiccated at the same time.
School lunch menus have evolved during the years and now boast pizza, tacos and other foods kids find more appealing. However, the latest changes have focused on healthier foods, the worry being that fat-heavy menus coupled with vending machine offerings are said to contribute to children's obesity.
The boy at the farmers market wasn't overweight, but his knowledge of food was thin. He was surprised to learn that "cows grew in Hawaii," and that the lettuce his mother bought for his sandwiches, the melons and sweet potatoes he liked along with the snow peas and mustard cabbage he didn't like had all come from island soil.
Though I don't imagine that exposure to the market will stimulate aspirations to become a farmer, the information seemed to connect the boy to food. He was full of questions, one of which was why his school couldn't serve tasty sausages like the one he'd just inhaled.
Explaining to a child government subsidies, food distribution, supply and demand and the bureaucratic recipes in a school lunch program would be too hard. Yet his question deserves an answer.
As agriculture struggles for a solid place in Hawaii's economy, ideas for growth tend to lean toward niches and specialty products. While vanilla beans and hearts of palm fit well in the exotic image of island products, there should also be a place for garden-variety fruits and vegetables.
Many schools and colleges elsewhere are establishing links with their local farmers and producers to support each other. The partnerships allow schools to get better products at lower prices, stretching their budgets while circulating money within their own communities. Top restaurants here often commission growers for distinctive foodstuffs, and there's no reason Hawaii schools can't do the same for more ordinary provisions.
Schools are also partnering with farmers for academics, rolling together programs in math, science, social studies, health and physical education, something Hawaii should emulate given its agricultural history.
There are obstacles, but creative management and leadership can plow them over. The gain in saving money and energy, in increasing self-sufficiency and preserving agricultural land would be well worth the effort.
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Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org