A large gap in sites for the state Department of Education’s summer grab-and-go program, which provides free meals to children, is raising concerns in West Hawaii.
The Summer Seamless Option is set to begin on June 4, transitioning from the grab-and-go program launched March 23 to provide free meals for children at select public schools.
Four West Hawaii locations will cease meal distribution after June 3, however, leaving Waimea Elementary to the north in South Kohala and Naalehu Elementary to the south in Ka‘u as the closest sites for children in North and South Kona.
More than 59% of students at the four schools that will soon stop serving meals — Kahakai Elementary, Kealakehe Intermediate, Konawaena High and Waikoloa Elementary — were eligible for free or reduced lunch as of the 2018-19 school year according to the National Center for Education Statistics; that number has almost certainly increased in recent weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The list is fluid and still a work in progress,” said Albert Scales, administrator for the DOE’s School Food Services Branch. “We now have 11 sites on the Big Island to include Waimea Elementary and Naalehu Elementary. The coverage is expanding, and we hope to have a few more schools by next week.”
Though the DOE has touted additional help from public agencies, churches and nonprofit organizations to bridge the gap, no sites have been made public.
“The Grab-and-Go program has been an incredible support for our children and their families during this time of economic uncertainty and we thank our dedicated cafeteria workers, staff and administrators who have worked tirelessly to keep the daily meal distributions running smoothly,” Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said in a press release. “As we transition to the summer break, many of our 10-month employees will not be available to staff current sites, but partner organizations will be stepping forward to keep summer meals available at other sites in our communities.”
West Hawaii’s legislators have gotten involved to address the void in sites, but little progress has been made.
“I haven’t gotten any direct reply yet,” said Rep. Nicole Lowen (D-North Kona) when asked what the Hawaii DOE’s rationale was in choosing sites. “I’ve only gotten a reply in response to a tweet I sent out.”
“I did not receive any additional information after we contacted DOE to try to figure out why the Kona schools weren’t added,” said Sen. Dru Kanuha (D-Kona, Ka‘u), who earlier this month helped set up the DOE’s “Emergency Meals-to-You” program bringing shelf-stable meals to rural students. “To see that option being taken away in the areas that we felt needed meals is pretty frustrating.”
The SSO program will run through July 17. All children 18 and under can pick up meals from 7:30 to 8 a.m. for breakfast and 11:30 a.m. to noon for lunch at any of the sites. Locations and updates can be found online at www.hawaiipublicschools.org.