More than 100,000 Hawai‘i students receive free or reduced price meals during the school year. But, as HPR’s Molly Solomon reports, when summer hits, only a fraction continue to take advantage of the program.
It’s lunchtime at Jarrett Middle School. Kids file in and line up to fill their trays. Today’s menu is chicken teriyaki, a scoop of rice, mixed vegetables, and peaches.
More than three-quarters of the 250 students at the Pālolo middle school qualify for free or reduced price meals. Christianne Jardin runs a summer program at Jarrett called Afterschool All Stars, about 60 of them are here today in the cafeteria.
“If there was no lunch, I know some of these kids would not have a lunch,” said Jardin. “Some of them would just be drinking water.”
But the room is only about half full. And while many qualify, getting kids to actually show up is more difficult. Before summer began, Principal Reid Kuba tried connecting with families at nearby public housing in Pālolo Valley.
“Still, even when we went into the housing and talked to the leaders there,” Kuba explained. “We still hadn’t had kids come up.”
“Summer food is one of the most challenging programs out there,” said Nicole Woo, a senior policy analyst at Hawai‘i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice. “Kids aren’t in school so they’re not going to cafeterias every day.”
Woo says schools and the Department of Education should invest in more outreach and public awareness. Other states have found success collaborating with libraries, nonprofits, and local food pantries.
“During the school year, a lot of families rely on the schools to feed their children lunch and maybe even breakfast,” said Woo. “So in the summer, if these kids can get free lunch, that helps their parents stretch their food budget.”
Hawai‘i ranks 47th when it comes to summer meal programs, according to a national report from the Food Research and Action Center. Crystal Fitzsimons, who oversees the organization's work on child nutrition programs, says that’s actually an improvement from last year, when Hawai‘i came in dead last.
“A state like Hawai‘i is pretty spread out,” said Fitzsimons. “A state like Hawai‘i probably doesn’t have enough summer programs for low income kids. It does have a long way to go.”
In Hawai‘i, only one out of every 12 students who qualify to eat a free meal actually receives one. Part of the problem is a lack of transportation, especially in rural areas on neighbor islands. It’s a situation Chris Hecht found himself in last summer. The Kona Pacific Public Charter School founder says the nearest free meal site for his students involved a two hour drive.
“That essentially means there aren’t any,” said Hecht. “When we heard about that, we knew that we could do something because we have a kitchen. And we felt like we had to.”
Instead of requiring kids to come to them, the charter school ended up taking free meals on the road. They drove out to canoe clubs, multi-family housing and partnered with a nonprofit to expand their reach. This summer they went from serving 120 lunches a day to nearly 500.
“Children going hungry is simply not acceptable,” said Hecht. “While we can do something about it, we will.”
The mobile meal service will continue serving free lunch until July 29 when school gets back in session.
Find the full list of Hawaii DOE summer meal sites below: