Eating with aloha at UH Hilo, putting sustainability and local farmers first

UH Hilo is the only campus of the 10-campus UH System that serves 65 percent locally produced food.

By Kara Nelson.

Reid stands at left holding a stainless steel pan filled with greens, and Bridget Awong stands at right with a sweet potato in her hand.
(l-r) Reid Kusano, who does catering and retail for UH Hilo Dining Services, and Bridget Awong, general manager. Kusano is holding a tray of local greens, and Awong local sweet potato. Courtesy photo.

If farm-fresh vegetables with locally grass-fed beef or fresh-caught fish is your idea of the perfect meal, then the Dining Services at University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is where you’ll want to eat. Each day, 65 percent of the food served is from local sources, increasing five percent since 2012. Once a month, the daily menu is 100 percent locally grown food.

This is the result of “Local First,” a program started in 2006 by Bridget Awong, general manager of Sodexo Dining Services at UH Hilo. Awong is a down-to-earth local foodie and chef who is passionate about helping local farmers while providing quality food and services to the UH Hilo community.

UH Hilo is the only campus of the 10-campus UH System that serves 65 percent locally produced food. The farm-fresh fare isn’t limited to the Campus Center Dining Hall—it spans the whole campus including the residence halls. University Dining Services is under the corporate policies of Sodexo, a corporate food services company, which encourages locally-sourced food supplies.

In years past, Sodexo’s fare at UH Hilo was usually made up of about 60 percent locally produced food, thanks to “local first” thinking on Awong’s part. Starting in 2012, with the full support of UH Hilo Chancellor Don Straney and in conjunction with Hawai‘i Community College and UH West Hawai‘i, Awong launched a pilot program called Local First Wednesdays, when special plates are sold comprised of 100 percent local items on the first Wednesday of each month.

Local First Wednesdays are now mainstay events on the campus and a big success with the UH Hilo community, and have helped boost the monthly percentage of local food served to 65 percent. Here is a sampling of the menu for Wednesday, Feb. 4:

Several shrimp in gravy, surrounding a mound of white rice and topped with greens.
Local First Wednesday fare for Feb. 4: Kaua‘i shrimp etoufee, sweet Kaua‘i shrimp creole style in a spicy blonde roux with local vegetables. Courtesy photo.
  • Grill Lunch: Blackened ahi sandwich, Cajun seasoning rubbed, fresh ahi, quickly seared on a house-made Kaiser roll with a pineapple chili relish and taro fries
  • Deli Sandwich: Pulled BBQ kalua pork sliders on house-made biscuits, Kulana kalua pork mixed with smokey BBQ sauce, served with a choice of Atebara chips or Moloka‘i u‘ala salad
  • Sizzling Salad (in honor of Black History Month, local with soul food flair): Southern style ahi katsu salad, corn meal coated fresh, island caught ahi, flash fried, on a bed of Waimea greens with a sweet & spicy Cajun honey aioli
  • Hot Line Entrée: Smothered steak, grass-fed Kulana rib-eye steak, pan seared and smothered in a rich and savory light gravy with sweet local onions
  • Hot Line Entrée: Kaua‘i shrimp etoufee, sweet Kaua‘i shrimp creole style in a spicy blonde roux with local vegetables
  • Hot Line Vegetarian/Vegan (also with a nod to Black History Month): Waimea fried green tomatoes with a Hawaiian chili ranch dip, green tomatoes from Nakano Farms, coated in seasoned cornmeal, and fried golden brown

“We’re trying to work it out where we can do (100 percent local menus) more often, but sometimes it’s hard for our vendors,” says Awong. “We deal with a lot of mom and pops (farmers) and sometimes they don’t have the volume for that.”

Strategy

Awong says she plans ahead with farmers to ensure a year-long supply of items and to prevent everyone from growing the same thing.

Of course, in Hawai‘i there isn’t enough supply to meet demand, thus some items must come from the mainland, a commonly-known situation Awong readily acknowledges.

“But you make a very conscientious decision when making your menu design,” she says, noting their hamburgers, steaks, and kalua pork all come from Kulana Foods in Hilo.

Awong says the success of the Local First program is because of the collaboration between her team and island farmers. True to the name of the program, Awong and her team always look to Hawai‘i Island farmers first when planning menus.

For example, through some strategic planning, one vendor provides cucumbers and another provides zucchini. There is a vendor in Lapahoehoe that grows asparagus and BEST Farms in Waimea grows seasonal local cantaloupes. February’s collard greens came from Kekela Farms in Waimea. Island lettuces come from Nakamoto Farm and cucumbers come from the Hodson family WOW Farm, both also in Waimea. Some of the local farms providing food to Local First are:

  • Aojiso: Shiso
  • B.E.S.T. Farm: romaine, iceberg  lettuces and green cabbage and broccoli crowns
  • Dole: pineapple
  • Hamakua Spring Farms: bananas
  • Kawano Farm: green leaf lettuce and romaine
  • Kekela Farm: baby mix lettuce
  • Kohala MT Farms: baby spinach, spring mix lettuce, baby arugula
  • L&R farm: sweet potatoes
  • Lone Palm: clover spouts, mung bean sprouts
  • Nakamoto Farm: green and red leaf lettuces, romaine hearts and romaine
  • Natural Pacific: organic tofu
  • Okada: celery, green cabbage, Napa cabbage, broccoli
  • Okuna: basil
  • Onomea: starfruit, dragon fruit, rambutan, mangosteen
  • Sunrise Farm: tomatoes, english cucumbers
  • W&C: Julian papayas
  • Wailea Ag: hearts of palm and nutmeg
  • WOW Farm: cucumbers, tomatoes
  • Yokoyama: taro leaf

All Awong’s honey for baking and cooking comes from UH Hilo’s apiary run by students under the tutelage of Lorna Tsutsumi, professor of entomology.

A big part of the strategy is building relationships with farmers. Twice a year, Awong and her team do farm visits, a combination of talking story with farmers and doing some business.

“We get to see what they do, we get to hear the challenges, why they do the things that they do,” she says.

The Berger Family: Roy, Marlene and son Brandon, with Marlene Berger holding a bunch of watercress. In the background are watercress fields.
The Berger Family. Courtesy Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture. Click to enlarge.

Awong gives the example of Berger’s Kama‘aina Farm in Mountain View, run by local farmer Roy Berger and his wife Marlene Berger with six or seven employees. A few years back, when the vog ruined all three acres of their watercress farm, the Bergers had to let their employees go and then replant all three million watercress plants themselves.

“So when you go to the farms, you listen to the challenges,” she Awong, adding that Berger produces the only land (not water) watercress in the state of Hawai‘i. “And he does such a beautiful job.”

Awong notes she could order watercress from a producer on O‘ahu, but instead builds her menu around Burger’s production. If the farm isn’t currently in bloom, she’ll wait until it is to put a watercress dish on the menu.

Awong says she values the farm visits and getting to know the challenges that the local farmers face–labor challenges, land challenges, water challenges. “So when you make a decision, the impact is very great, when you decide, do you forgo that particular product or do you buy it from the mainland,” she explains.

Often, local farmers tell her she is the first person they have met who is the end user, meaning they have never before had a local business purchasing their products for their own cooking or salads and side dishes.

Only if local farmers do not have what she really needs, does Awong start searching elsewhere. “We will go to the neighbor islands if this island does not have anything,” she explains. “So we’ll go to Maui first, then to O‘ahu. But it’s still local, it all stays still in our Hawai‘i economy.”

Challenges

The logo for Local First is red. It has a circle of red with a hand in the center making the shaka.

UH Hilo’s Local First program now uses 42 vendors for fruits, vegetables, beef, fish, coffee and more. But when the initiative began back in 2006, there were only seven or eight produce vendors providing to UH Hilo. At one point, the number of vendors dropped to three because of weather, labor, and water issues.

“Farmers were having problems,” Awong explains. “The biggest challenge we looked (at) was how we could get the local farmers together and how we could get their product to us.”

The farms’ biggest challenges were not having distributors and not being certified. Awong explains that the farmers were not Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified, a food safety process farmers must pass in order to be certified to sell.

Another big problem for farmers was computers and the amount of paperwork needed, so Awong offered to have someone show them how to do it. Some farmers were open and willing to receive help, while others weren’t.

“A lot of them got on the band wagon, they got GAP-certified,” Awong says, which then allows her to pick up the farmers though a distributor. “And then it starts to grow.”

The biggest challenge that all the farmers share is the lack of labor. “There’s not enough labor,” she says, noting that farming is hard work and that many young people would rather have computer jobs.

Further, Awong notes that most local farmers are nearing retirement age and their children are not taking up the farming business. Some farmers tell her they may sell their farm and move. “That’s the thing that we’re hoping, (that) some of the farmers’ children continue the legacy of their parents. Some will and some won’t. So that’s why we continue to do the Local First, because you see, that’s a big impact.”

To build her resources, Awong has high hopes for UH Hilo Agricultural Farm Laboratory, located on 110 acres in Panaʻewa, where the College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management engages in research and applied learning. They grow lettuce and other fresh fruits and vegetables, have an aquaculture facility, and raise farm animals, but all in a controlled environment for teaching and research, not as a commercial enterprise.

Awong sees the university’s farm as a potential way to be even more sustainable, with the university providing some of its own food, and she’s made clear to the administration that she’s ready to buy if the farm becomes ready to sell. “I would love to pull from our university, but they’re not there yet,” she says. “But what a plan, I’m excited.”

Accolades

In 2012, Awong received the Chancellor’s Certificate of Recognition for her work on Local First.

“The Chancellor, bless his soul, he’s been so supportive from day one with our program,” she says, fondly remembering her shock when she was surprised with the award at UH Hilo’s 2012 Spring Commencement. She says she felt honored and humbled. After the ceremony, people from the community came up to her and thanked her for buying local products from local farmers.

“I was touched, I was dumb-founded,” she said. “But it makes you really think about the impact on peoples’ lives when you do something local like this. Best day of my life, being honored by Chancellor Straney, being honored by (the) community, that was awesome, and I’m glad–that’s why I do what I do.”

 

About the author of this story: Kara Nelson is a senior at UH Hilo double majoring in English and Communication. She is an intern in the Office of the Chancellor.

-UH Hilo Stories