A recent roundup by a national research organization has put renewed focus on how Hawaii handles student access to school meals over unpaid meal debt.

A Sept. 25 blog post by the national research group, Child Trends, pointed out that Hawaii is one of three states in the country with laws “that allow schools to restrict students’ access to meals under certain parameters.”

Hawaii was ahead of many states when it passed a law in 2017 prohibiting schools from denying students meals for failure to pay off their balances before a grace period expired. No grace period existed before that time.

But since 2017,  the recent Child Trends report noted 11 states around the country have passed laws that address access to school meals “in a supportive way,” such as requiring schools to provide meals to all students regardless of their ability to pay.

“Now that other states have much stronger laws on the books, we might try and start a discussion about this,” in Hawaii, said Nicole Woo, senior policy analyst at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice.

Ala Wai Elementary school students enjoy beefstew during lunch.
At least 100 Hawaii DOE students were denied a meal in 2017 due to an unpaid meal balance, according to a DOE report. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Nearly half of Hawaii’s 179,000 public school students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

The 2017 legislation prohibits schools from denying a student a meal within the first 21 days of the first semester of a school year while their application for free or reduced lunch is being processed — or in the first seven days after their meal fund account reaches a zero or negative balance.

It also required the Hawaii DOE to submit a report to the Legislature documenting the number of times students that year were denied meals due to a failure to pay and any steps taken to address that issue.

The DOE distributed an online survey to 293 schools. But only 87 schools — less than one third — responded. Three-fourths of the schools that responded said no students were denied meals based on fund balances. But the report found that 100 to 125 students total were denied meals as a result of unpaid meal debt.

“Most schools allow students to incur a negative balance; the school and community often work together to repay it,” the report stated.

There were many reasons for not maintaining a replenished meal account balance, from financial hardship to a delay in payment to an inability of parents to complete a free and reduced meal application, according to the report.

School districts nationally contend with unpaid student meal debt. At the end of the 2016-17 school year, 75% of school districts in the U.S. faced unpaid meal debt, according to a 2018 State of School Nutrition Survey.

At the end of April 2016, the Hawaii DOE was still owed $64,898 for unpaid school meals at 199 schools.

State Sen. Gilbert Keith-Agaran, who introduced the 2017 bill, said the idea came after he spoke to a constituent who was “caught in the paperwork hassle.”

“I think it’s important for those who can pay for their student’s lunches to actually pay for them,” he said in an interview. “The concern my constituent had was for a child who qualified for a meal subsidy or free lunch … was being denied simply because the paperwork was not being done.”

According to DOE testimony for a later version of that bill, schools are allowed to develop their own policies and procedures for negative balance notification and meal denials. Notifications can include a personal phone call home, a robocall or printing out a reminder notice and sending it home with a student to the parent.

In early 2017, the DOE enabled schools to accept online payments for meal services.

The DOE also participates in the Community Eligibility Provision program, which enables all students at schools where free and reduced lunch kids make up a certain percentage of the student body to receive a free meal. In the current school year, 52 DOE schools and 15 charter schools are CEP schools.

One DOE school, Moanalua Middle, reflects how area schools handle unpaid school meal balances. “Insufficient funds = no meal,” the school’s website states. But it also explains that a student will not be denied “a first lunch” within the first seven days after the account reaches a zero balance.

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