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West // West Oahu Coverstory
Christina O’Connor

Kapolei Cookies To Test National Leader Stage

Kapolei High School graduates Jalen Payongayong (left) and Kelsey Cruz take a bite out of their very own award-winning power cookies, Aina Bites, developed in the school's culinary lab and headed for a national competition. Photo by Christina O'Connor.

Kapolei High School graduates Jalen Payongayong (left) and Kelsey Cruz take a bite out of their very own award-winning power cookies, Aina Bites, developed in the school’s culinary lab and headed for a national competition. Photo by Christina O’Connor.

School may be out for 2014 Kapolei High graduates Jalen Payongayong and Kelsey Cruz, but they’ve been busy prepping for the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America National Leadership Conference in San Antonio, Texas, where they will compete July 6-10 in the Food Innovation category.

Their secret weapon is a “power cookie” they concocted earlier this year.

In February, the girls presented their product at the state FCCLA conference — and won. Since then, they’ve been perfecting packaging and presentation, and whipping up more batches of their Aina Bites cookies.

They are packed primarily with ingredients that come from local sources, which was crucial for the students. They wanted their product to promote sustainability and food security within Hawaii.

“When you use local ingredients, you support our local farmers,” Cruz explained.

“And it keeps the money in our community,” Payongayong added.

Their interest in food politics was cultivated last fall, when they went on a fall-break program with the high school to Hawaii island to talk with local food producers and farmers.

They returned home wanting to continue to be involved with food and sustainability in some capacity.

That is when culinary teacher Cynthia Pratt introduced them to the FCCLA club. They started developing the idea of a cookie that was healthy and used local products.

“It was all trial and error,” Payongayong recalled. “We were in the lab for days trying new things.”

Some of their creations, they admitted, did not turn out so great, such as dough with teriyaki sauce and furikake.

But through long hours in the lab, the winning treat was born. Aina Bites are high in protein and fiber and use kiawe pod bean flour as a main ingredient. The good-for-you cookies also are free of gluten, GMOs, eggs and dairy, plus there’s no added sugar.

Although neither girl was enrolled in Kapolei’s culinary academy — Payongayong graduated from its business academy, while Cruz was in human services — they both are toying with the idea of pursuing a related career.

Cruz will study at Leeward Community College in the fall, and Payongayong plans to attend UH-West Oahu.

Cruz also has landed a summer internship with Catering Connections. In fact, she’s one of four Kapolei High students doing an internship in the culinary industry this summer — a fact that teacher Pratt is proud of. Two are working at a lodge in Alaska, and the other is stationed right down the street from the school at Hapa Grill.

While the girls are surprised Aina Bites has done so well, Pratt could see it coming. “When they called out the gold medals,” she said, “we were not surprised at all.” And of the upcoming competition, she added, “They’ll do well. Everybody seems to like the taste of the product.”

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