Before classes started up today, nearly all of the 230 students at Kona Pacific Public Charter School got free meals consisting of fritadas, mixed fruit, brown rice and milk.

They’ll get breakfast again tomorrow. And for at least the rest of the year, too.

The charter school, which serves grades kindergarten through eight, today became the first public school in Hawaii to offer free breakfast in the classroom to all students, regardless of their ability to pay. More than two-thirds of Kona Pacific’s students are low-income and qualify for free and reduced-price meals, but at this school every student gets a nutritious breakfast daily.

Kona Pacific school breakfasts meals kids

Kona Pacific Public Charter School students pick up their plates to bring to and eat at their desks.

Ilana M.E. Maxwell/SoulSightArtistry

The program, which is sponsored by the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, ultimately aims to improve student learning and well-being on the grounds that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and plays an integral role in a child’s academic performance.

Nationally, universal breakfast has been shown to support academic achievement, improve children’s health and well-being, help struggling families and reduce the stigma that school breakfasts are only for poor children, according to an Appleseed Center press release.

Attendees at today’s launch included Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, and Charter School Commission Executive Director Tom Hutton. And the breakfasts already appear to be popular among the students, said the school’s Executive Director Chris Hecht; virtually every student participated.

The federal government has for four decades subsidized breakfasts at public schools, but, as Civil Beat has reported in the past, few kids in the U.S. actually take advantage of the program — including the low-income students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

The problem is especially pronounced in Hawaii. Just 43 percent of low-income Hawaii students actually ate the federally subsidized, school-provided morning meals during the 2012-13 school year, the most recent year for which data is available. Hawaii ranks 45th in the country for the rate of children who participate in the breakfast program, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Once the school became aware of the Appleseed Center grant, it jumped on the opportunity, Hecht said. The Appleseed Center has been working on a universal-breakfast initiative for a number of years but had difficulty piloting it in regular public schools — a challenge Hecht in part attributed to bureaucratic hitches in the Department of Education. The hope is to ultimately roll the option out to other public schools across the state.

“(Our program) is much bigger than the 230 students that are fortunate enough to get on the lottery and attend our school,” Hecht said. “It extends to the 94 percent of Hawaii’s children that are in public schools … It is our hope that we’re the tail that wags the DOE.”

The federal government subsidizes the breakfasts to cover the free and reduced price meals, while schools typically cover the rest of the costs. In this case, the Appleseed Center is providing $25,000 to cover Kona Pacific’s remaining balance, including the $10,000 needed for overhead costs and about $15,000 for operational costs. Kona Pacific hasn’t hired any new staff members, though it’s looking at options to expand its capacity, Hecht said.

Once the program is more streamlined in the coming years, Hecht expects the annual operational costs to come down to about $10,000. The school also hopes to double the amount of locally grown food used. (All meals are already made from scratch.)

Kona Pacific already piloted the program in a few classrooms this past May. The three-week pilot revealed that the breakfasts boosted student attention and participation levels and increased attendance and punctuality, the press release says.

The new initiative further distinguishes Kona Pacific’s already-unconventional meal program. The school established its own in-house food vendor in 2012 after its former distributer went out of business. Kona Pacific’s “WHOLE Food Service,” which is supported by community foundations and also operates as a Meals on Wheels provider, now serves about 600 people in the Kona area daily, including the school’s 230 students.

As Civil Beat has reported in the past, the DOE doesn’t provide meals to charter schools.

Kona Pacific will be the subject of an academic research study on the benefits of universal breakfast in the classroom with an eye toward bringing the initiative to more public schools across the islands.

The study will include data looking at the breakfast program’s impact on factors such as student absenteeism, health and behavior.

 

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