The opportunity for all Hawaii public school students to get free meals at school during the pandemic could end at the close of the school year, potentially cutting off thousands of kids from access to nutritious meals.

When the pandemic hit two years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the nation’s school meal program, waived certain restrictions, allowing all children nationwide to get free school meals. The loosening of rules was designed to help blunt the educational, health and economic impacts of the pandemic.

The waivers also gave schools more flexibility, allowing them to provide things such as grab-and-go meals and multiple meals pick-ups on school campuses. The USDA also provided a higher meal reimbursement rate for schools to ease the financial cost.

But local child nutrition advocates are now on edge after the latest federal spending bill failed to extend these waivers for next school year by excluding funding for the program in the $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill.

Unless Congress amends the bill, the waivers will expire at the end of the current school year for Hawaii’s 257 public schools.

“Once the waivers end, families will have to go back to paying for meals,” said Sharlene Wong, program administrator of Hawaii Child Nutrition Programs. “If they are experiencing financial hardship, they will not be able to pay for meals for their children.”

Child hunger advocates say this is especially concerning in a state that experiences one of the worst food insecurity rates in the country.

Waimea Middle School cafeteria food lunch.
Hawaii schools switched to grab-and-go pickup to distribute meals after the pandemic hit. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Hawaii is among the 10 states with the highest projected food insecurity rate in 2021 at 15%, jumping about 4 percentage points from 2019, according to the nonprofit Feeding America.

For children specifically, Hawaii had the second highest-food insecurity rate in the nation in 2021, at about 25%.

Hawaii also experienced one of the steepest drops in average daily participation in the school lunch program between the 2018-19 and 2020-21 school years. Roughly 100,200 kids took advantage of school lunches just before the pandemic, but that number dropped to 39,400 by 2020-21, a 61% decrease, according to a February 2022 report from Food Research & Action Center.

Experts say the dip in Hawaii may be larger because not all schools offered a grab-and-go option or had limited meal pick-up times. Plus, Hawaii may have kept kids in remote learning for a longer period than other schools around the country.

“Our drop (in Hawaii) was twice as large as the national average,” said Nicole Woo, director of research and economic policy at Hawaii Children’s Action Network. “The DOE did shift to providing free grab and go meals (during the pandemic) which was commendable but we still had one of the worst drops in the nation.”

“We’re just very concerned that so many children were missing out on meals,” Woo said.

Waivers Allowed ‘A Lot of Flexibility’

Paul Kepka, the principal of Kamaile Academy, a pre-K to 12 public charter school on Oahu’s Waianae coast, saw firsthand how the federal waivers expanded access to meals in the surrounding community.

At one point the school, where 94% of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, was able to serve close to 1,000 to 1,600 meals daily to kids in the broader area.

The charter school is part of the Community Eligibility Provision program, which enables all kids in a school to eat meals for free based on the school’s total low-income enrollment. So while all kids at Kamaile could access free meals even pre-pandemic, the new waivers allowed the school more flexibility in the delivery and structure of meals.

“It allowed for drive-through food service, walk-up food service, non-congregating food service where kids didn’t have to eat in the cafeteria,” Kepka said.

The school was even able to reach young children who might not have been part of the campus community.

“We wanted to make sure we had the flexibility to make sure kids could eat and the waivers really allowed for that,” Kepka said. “Sometimes our kids come to school due to access to food.”

At the Kualapu‘u Public Charter School on Molokai, principal Lydia Trinidad said the USDA waivers allowed the school to serve kids who weren’t yet old enough to attend school.

“The biggest thing is we were able to serve our meals in different locations,” Trinidad said. “Molokai is spread out — we could deliver to other schools or other communities” versus having to serve those meals in the cafeteria only, or just during school hours.

The school tried to provide meals that included a fresh fruit or vegetable, bread or a starch and some kind of processed meat, such as chicken or beef.

Trinidad said the summertime is when Kualapu‘u was able to do most of its food outreach.

The USDA waivers “allowed a lot of flexibilities that weren’t there before,” said Daniela Spoto, Hawaii Appleseed’s director of anti-hunger initiatives, particularly when it comes to reaching kids in rural communities.

“By taking advantage of waivers to deliver meal kits to rural communities, we could define rural as anything but urban Honolulu,” Spoto added. “Any child under 18 could sign up to get free meals last summer.”

Trinidad said that at her school, parents could pick up meals for other families.

“Delivery access beyond the walls of the school is what will change” if those waivers go away, Trinidad pointed out.

The Food Research & Action Center said that given the economic and health impacts of the pandemic, offering free meals to all students “should remain the new normal for all students across the country.”

“The waivers that have been critical to maintaining school meal operations must remain available as long as needed,” the policy center wrote in its February 2022 report.

Woo, of Hawaii Children’s Action Network, noted that inflation and supply chain disruptions have only pushed food prices up higher, making the timing difficult to stomach.

“This is not a great time to pull these waivers away,” she said.

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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