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State lawmakers put free school meals initiative on hold

Molly Solomon
Molly Solomon

A measure that would require the state Department of Education to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students has stalled in the Legislature.

House Bill 540 would have appropriated funds to offer DOE and public charter school students more meals, regardless of their eligibility for the national food programs.

Under current state law, school breakfast and lunch must be made available to all students, and districts may not deny meals to anyone with insufficient funds during the first 21 days of the academic year.

Supporters of HB 540 argue that offering free meals to all students year-round may remove the stigma behind the idea of a "free or reduced lunch."

"It is not something that should exist. Judgment should not be placed upon parents or their children due to their financial situation," stated Nate Hix, with Hawaiʻi Public Health Institute, in written testimony.

While HB 540 received large support from community organizations, several lawmakers expressed their concern about the cost to maintain a program of this size.

The DOE estimates it would cost $64 million a year to feed every student throughout the state.

While the state has a budget surplus this year, Sen. Donna Mercado Kim raised concerns about how the state would sustain the program.

Kim told DOE administrators to prioritize their needs.

"There's concerns about having the kids with all the school supplies they need, having the transportation for our kids to get to the school," she said. "There's a lot of need. So where do we prioritize?"

While the Senate Education Committee deferred the measure, Chair Michelle Kidani asked the DOE to find a way to help students in need of free meals.

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