Kapiolani Community College’s culinary arts department has turned to squash and lilikoi vines to camouflage their plants from would-be thieves.
Since September, reports of stolen plants at Diamond Head Community College have increased. Faculty members believe the poachers got away with greenery ranging from succulents to native Hawaiian plants. Students and faculty are trying new methods to deter theft, including more vegetation.
“Our biggest problem is theft,” said Grant Sato, a KCC culinary arts instructor who runs the garden. “We have noticed that with this excessive growth, which we only recently abandoned, the number of flights has dropped considerably.”
Brian Furuto, vice-chancellor of administrative services at KCC, who also oversees security, confirmed he had received reports of plant theft. It said its security staff and contractors prioritize the protection of people and facilities.
Sato and others suspect much of the theft occurs during the KCC Farmers’ Market – held every Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. in Parking Lot B – located in the lower wing of campus.
To curb the theft, administrators first tried traditional security tactics, like installing cameras and signage, Sato said. However, the thieves continued to approach the garden, grabbing plants and fleeing.
“It’s so disheartening,” he said. “Our students – pre-pandemic, of course – were putting so much effort into planting and maintaining the garden that they saw their produce disappear over the weekends.”
The Culinary Arts Edible Garden, created by chef David Brown, has been around for about 12 years. The goal of the garden is to be a hands-on resource for students to learn about the cultivation of the ingredients they use, while also serving as a tool to teach sustainability and entrepreneurship. It is supported by volunteers and donations.
After Brown retired in the spring of 2020 – a month before the pandemic halted – Sato took over plot responsibilities. It was a difficult time for the garden, he said, as it was left unattended for a few months.
In the summer of 2020, with the help of student volunteers, the program began a “complete overhaul” of the garden. Faculty and students brought a variety of plants, including variegated Ti leaves and Song of Indias.
After eight plants Sato personally bought were stolen during a 3-month period, he gave up on restocking the garden.
In September, faculty members in the culinary department decided to try the “proliferation method” — a last resort to keep thieves and pests away from their plants.
“We have decided to halt efforts to ‘manicure’ the perimeter to deter entry into the garden,” Sato wrote in an email. “Overgrowth and weeds also help keep insects away from good plants.”
He added that the culinary garden is organic and uses no pesticides or chemicals.
The culinary department added deer fillets, squash and lilikoi to the fence. Lilikoi have even been used to make pastries by culinary students.
Sato is optimistic that the interest in an endowment to the UH Foundation will help support the garden in the future. The culinary department will receive interest from the endowment for the maintenance of the garden each year.
He added that a private donor will make a separate donation which will be used to purchase fencing equipment by the summer. He said the infrastructure should be completed in the fall. The current fence is broken and in poor condition.
Sato declined to assign a monetary value to the endowment and donation because attorneys are still reviewing the endowment.
“Students will learn how the plant reproduces, when is the best time to harvest, how to harvest and replant, and how indigenous people ate the plants,” Sato said. “They can do it with less hassle of theft.”
–Nathan Bek contributed reporting to this story.