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Nearly all of Hawaii’s public schools participate in the federal School Breakfast Program, but only 43 percent of low-income students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches also take advantage of subsidized school breakfast.
Now a new report by the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice aims to draw further attention to the issue by releasing a school-by-school participation analysis.
The Appleseed Center’s report pivots off a national study released last year by the Food Research & Action Center, which ranked Hawaii near the bottom of all states in terms of school breakfast participation among low-income students in the 2015-16 school year.
Students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch based on a family’s income eligibility are also entitled to free or reduced-price breakfast.
The center took a closer look at the rate of breakfast participation in 255 public schools and 21 public charter schools in Hawaii that year. It found that only 15 schools reached the desired national benchmark of a 70 percent breakfast participation rate — or put another way, 70 low-income children eating school breakfast for every 100 who partook in a school lunch.
The average percentage across Hawaii was 43 percent.
“If Hawaii were to raise our participation rate to 70 percent, almost 17,000 more of our keiki would benefit from school breakfast, and our state would get nearly $7 million more per year in additional federal funds,” states the report.
As with the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program is a federal program that reimburses participating public and nonprofit private schools for meals served. The meals must meet federal nutrition requirements and are offered to students at full price, a reduced price or at no cost based on a family’s income as a percentage of the poverty level.
“If we can get more kids to eat school breakfast, we think it can help their education and their family budgets.” — Nicole Woo
Schools get reimbursed after submitting meal counts. If schools are submitting higher meal counts by serving more meals to kids, they would receive a higher federal reimbursement.
In Hawaii, more than half of all public school students — 56 percent — qualified for free or reduced-price meals in the 2015-16 school year, according to the Appleseed Center.
Yet less than half of the students who could receive a free or reduced-price lunch were also eating school breakfasts at a reduced cost or for free. That matters, said Appleseed Senior policy analyst Nicole Woo, because this crucial first meal of the day leads to long-term benefits.
“Breakfast helps kids learn,” she said. “Low-income families in Hawaii especially struggle with food costs. If we can get more kids to eat school breakfast, we think it can help their education and their family budgets.”
According to a Gallup survey cited in the Appleseed report, 14 percent, or nearly one in seven, Hawaii households with children had a hard time covering food costs in 2014-15.
Hawaii’s low rate of school breakfast participation among low-income kids is troubling from a public policy perspective in view of the fact that skipping that meal makes it harder for students to concentrate, retain information or lessen behavioral problems, according to the study.
On the flip side, having breakfast boosts academic performance through higher test scores, reduces absenteeism and generally leads to greater health outcomes down the road, according to the report.
Yet as many as 64 percent of high-schoolers in Hawaii in 2015 said they skipped breakfast “on a regular basis,” while nearly 54 percent of middle-schoolers did so, the center reported.
“I heard that some schools are trying to do a free breakfast for all kids on test day — it’s a recognition they need to have a good meal in their belly in order to take a standardized test,” Woo said.
“We’re wanting to work with schools on improving (breakfast) participation throughout the school year,” she added. “We think just as important as learning the information is to have a good breakfast in the belly.”
By dispersing up to $10,000 in grant funding per school, the center is encouraging Hawaii’s schools to experiment with different models of serving breakfast to reach more students rather than sticking to the traditional in-the-cafeteria, rushed process before the first bell of the day.
This could include serving breakfast in the classrooms, through a “grab and go” method from service carts or just offering it later in the morning to account for high schoolers’ changing biological rhythms.
That’s how Kamaile Academy, a pre-K-12 Hawaiian-focused arts integration charter school in Waianae, boosted its school breakfast participation rate nearly five-fold over the past year among its seventh to 12th-graders. The students devised a plan in which they could essentially grab breakfast on the go after the first period of the day. Known as “Wiki breakfast,” for the Hawaiian word for “superquick,” the meals are offered either as a bento-style box of hot food such as Portuguese sausage, scrambled eggs and rice or fruit and yogurt.
“The whole thing takes 15 minutes, from 9:10 a.m. to 9:25 a.m.,” said assistant principal Paul Kepka. He said since the program was implemented, the number of secondary-level students who ate breakfast at the school shot up from about 40 to 170 out of 225 total students at those grade levels.
“Teachers have reported that behavioral problems are down – with more positive behavior in the classroom. As a whole, our attendance is way up — we’re up 3.5 percent in attendance,” he said.
Kamaile, where 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, is also one of 52 Community Eligibility Provision schools in the state, meaning all enrolled students at that school can get free lunch and breakfast because of the overall high percentage of students who qualify for subsidized meals.
The Community Eligibility Provision program is seen as an effective vehicle to reducing the stigma associated with free or reduced-priced meals because it does not distinguish subsidized meal eligibility among students, according to the Appleseed Center’s report.