For the last month and a half, a small white truck with a cheerful green logo stamped on the side has parked by the Hale Wai Vista, an affordable housing complex in Waianae, under a canopied awning in a parking lot near City Mill.
The vehicle is a welcome fixture, a way to pass out fresh school meals to area youth, many of whom wear a wide grin and say “thank you” to the adult helpers before picking up their food and a carton of milk.
Every weekday morning since June 10, volunteers and Hawaii Department of Education cafeteria staffers have set up a long collapsible table and covered it with a green floral tablecloth, stacking it with hot meals individually packaged in reusable plastic containers for neighborhood kids.
On a recent Friday, the tightly sealed containers held chicken patties on buns with edamame, still warm to the touch, and a side of lettuce, carrot sticks and strawberries, with cartons of milk kept cold on ice in nearby coolers.
“Come, sweetheart, chocolate or white?” Andrinena Cabral, a cook at Waianae High School cafeteria, asked a young girl who shyly approached the table. “Go get your food, your lunch!” she gently encouraged her.
It is the middle of July. School’s out, but here, in the middle of a Waianae complex in the open air, free lunch is still served.
This year, the Hawaii DOE is trying something new to try and reach more kids through the Seamless Summer Option Program, an extension of the federally assisted National School Lunch Program that provides free or reduced meals to kids from low-income households.
Although school lunch is still provided on select school campuses around the state over the summer, the DOE realized many kids either have difficulty getting there because of transportation issues or won’t come to school if they don’t actually have to be there — even if it’s for a free hot meal.
Enter the Aina Pono “food delivery truck,” which has been providing fresh meals to children in Waianae at five stops around the coast. The program ends Friday.
Meals are cooked and packaged at the Waianae High cafeteria each morning. A team of volunteers, mostly area college students, then helps to load the meals and other cargo onto the truck.
Key to this operation is the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, a community nonprofit that provides the volunteers with an eight-seat van and also the social media savvy to promote the meals service through Facebook and on the Instagram account @makekefarmers.
“We discovered in Hawaii that relationships really matter,” said Dexter Kishida, farm to school coordinator with the DOE’s school food services branch. “Having a community partner like (WCCHC) was really essential to plan out how to do this mobile service to be most effective, to find areas that we could go to that would feed the greatest number of students with the most amount of need.”
And in Waianae, the need is strong. Every school on the west side of the island is part of the Community Eligibility Provision program, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program which provides free lunches due to the high enrollment of low-income families.
The DOE has been distributing, on average, 400 meals a day across the five stops this summer. At the Waianae High location itself, the cafeteria might serve only about 150 meals during one summer meal service, according to cafeteria manager Kelly Santana.
“The numbers that were showing up (at school) didn’t reflect the need,” said Alicia Higa, the director of health promotion at the Waianae nonprofit. “That’s why they decided to pilot the program, to reach more students.”
After loading up the meals at Waianae High, the truck makes its first stop at Hale Wai Vista. It then heads to Pokai Bay Beach Park before making the 3-mile journey inland to Ohana Ola, a transitional housing center near Kahumana Organic Farm. Then it’s back to the coast to Ulu Wehi near Kamaile Academy and finally Makaha Beach.
“It’s been a huge success, mainly because we’re taking (the food) to them,” Kishida said. “It makes it really accessible. That really was the point.”
Hawaii historically has ranked toward the bottom of the country in terms of average daily participation in summer nutrition programs, according to the Food Research & Action Center, a national organization.
According to the most recent Summer Nutrition Status Report, Hawaii dropped from 41st to 43rd place based on July 2018 data measuring the percentage of low-income students who are fed in the summer compared with the academic year.
The federal summer nutrition programs fund the meals at sites where at least 50% of the children in that geographic region are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
The state reached 1,763 kids in July 2018 through summer meals compared with 1,840 the year before, a 4.2% decrease.
“We didn’t lose the number of sites, it just means there were fewer kids accessing the program (last year),” said Nicole Woo, senior policy analyst at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice. “Summer food is so different from school meals because it’s so decentralized.”
With the introduction of the Aina Pono food truck this year, Hawaii’s numbers should bump up by the next FRAC report, she said.
“The west side is the most important area to concentrate on,” Woo said. “We just know there aren’t a lot of other sites out in that direction. The fact the DOE is taking this on, you can imagine, there is so much potential. The food truck is such a great start.”
According to Kishida, the DOE is exploring other areas to expand mobile meals service next year, including Waikiki through a partnership with Waikiki Health to serve homeless youth, and the Hilo side of Big Island.
In Waianae, an additional truck is planned for next summer, according to Albert Scales, the DOE school food services branch administrator.
The cost of implementing mobile summer meals is nominal as the meals are already federally subsidized and the DOE already owns the van, said Kishida.
The DOE’s foray into this area — an increasingly popular option in other school districts around the country – isn’t the first in the state: other mobile meals programs have been in existence, including at Kona Pacific Public Charter School, and a community partnership through the Kapiolani Community College.
In Waianae this summer, the Aina Pono truck stays at each stop for about a half-hour. The college-age volunteers and DOE staff are quick on their feet, setting up and breaking down the food distribution station.
They hoist a large temperature-controlled storage container out of the trailer that keeps the fruit and vegetables crisp, set up a portable black speaker that pumps out mellow island music at each location and pass out meals with a cheerful smile.
“Sometimes they’re really excited and happy,” Ruth Kaeo, 20, a volunteer and a student at Leeward Community College who graduated from Nanakuli High, said of the kids’ reaction.
While meals are limited to children 18 and under, the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center is helping feed hungry families as well. By partnering with Hawaii Foodbank, it passes out plastic bags full of canned food like beef stew, green beans and tuna to adults who might come with their kids in tow.
Leichelle Iokia, a veteran cook in the DOE cafeteria, drives the Aina Pono truck, gently pressing on the horn a few times as the truck rolls into a new stop to signal its arrival.
On a recent Friday, the truck passed out 62 meals at Hale Wai Vista. The next stop at Pokai Bay was much busier, as a line of hungry kids still dripping wet from a dip in the ocean lined up single file. The team passed out 167 meals at that location alone.
“I love it,” Cabral, the cook at Waianae High, says of the truck. “Giving to the children, it’s so positive. It’s something new, something different. It’s awesome.”
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