Free summer lunch program remains hard sell

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More students in Hawaii are taking advantage of free, federally funded summer meals, but participation as a whole still lags behind other states, a new report claims.

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More students in Hawaii are taking advantage of free, federally funded summer meals, but participation as a whole still lags behind other states, a new report claims.

The yearly “Hunger Doesn’t Take a Vacation: Summer Nutrition Status Report,” compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center, ranks Hawaii No. 47 in the country for the percentage of students who ate free federal meals last summer in comparison to the school year.

On average, about 5,411 Hawaii students ate summer meals each day in July 2015, which is 8.4 percent of the roughly 64,139 who ate daily during in the 2014-15 school year.

The center wants 40 percent nationwide of those served in the school year to take advantage of summer meals, spokeswoman Signe Anderson said. However only one jurisdiction — Washington, D.C., — met that goal, the report shows.

“Summer is complicated,” Anderson said. “During the school year, you have buses taking (kids) to school during lunch hour, in the summer … the need is huge, it’s just the logistics of getting kids to the site. That gets much more challenging in the summer.”

Federal summer meal programs aim to help kids who may have food insecurities at home continue receiving nutritious meals once school’s out.

This year, at least 15 Big Island schools are participating in the USDA-funded “Seamless Summer Option,” a federal program available at schools where at least 50 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch — currently defined as $51,597 for a family of four.

A school must offer summer programs in order to participate in Seamless Summer Option.

Unlike school-year meals, available only to children who submit forms demonstrating they meet the income requirement, Seamless Summer meals are served to any child under 18.

The state Department of Education believes the number of federal meals served this summer will be higher — spokesman Brent Suyama said there are more sites participating in the program this year than last.

East Hawaii school administrators told the Tribune-Herald nearly all students who attend summer programs locally eat meals offered. For example all 400 students enrolled in summer programs at Waiakea High School eat lunch each day, Principal Kelsy Koga said, and those not on campus generally don’t make a special trip.

“Unless they have a reason for coming here, they really won’t, especially at the high school level,” Koga said. “ … They’re not going to just come and eat and leave. I don’t know of anyone that just comes for lunch.”

Administrators say there are other variables that could affect participation numbers on the Big Island — such as access to transportation, said Chad Farias, Ka’u-Keaau-Pahoa complex area superintendent.

“The students who need the meals the most, those are the kids where transportation may be the biggest issue,” Farias said.

The report ranked Hawaii dead last in the previous year, when 4,243 meals on average were served each day, which is 6.4 percent of the 66,645 served during the 2013-14 school year.

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DOE stats show more than 60 percent of students in the Hilo-Waiakea Complex Area qualify for free or reduced-price meals. In the KKP complex area, that number is near 83.55 percent.

Starting next year, every student in KKP schools will get free meals — even if they don’t qualify for free or reduced-priced meals — because the state Department of Education announced earlier this year it was expanding the federal Community Eligibility Provision program to all of the complex area’s schools.

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