A growing number of states are looking for ways to make free meals a permanent part of public education.

Hawaii lawmakers are weighing multiple proposals to address the gap between the number of students who are currently eligible for free school meals and the number of students who actually need them.

A federal program that provided free meals to all students during the coronavirus pandemic ended last summer, cutting off thousands of children in Hawaii from access to free meals. 

Hawaii is also one of only a few states with laws that allow students to be denied food when their parents fail to pay school lunch bills. Most states either have no law governing meal debt or have moved to a policy of requiring schools to feed children regardless of what their parents owe.

One proposed House bill would provide free lunch to students in state-run public schools for the upcoming 2023-24 school year, while another would make both breakfast and lunch free. A Senate proposal directs the state Department of Education to create a state subsidy for students who don’t qualify for federally subsidized free or reduced-priced meals.

Ala Wai Elementary school students enjoy beefstew during lunch.
Hawaii schools offered free meals to all public school students during the coronavirus pandemic. Hawaii is one of several states to introduce legislation to create a free meal program after federal funding for universal free meals ended last summer. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

The measures are backed by lawmakers who say universal free meals would eliminate looming school meal debt for families and reduce the stigma that some low-income students face for receiving free lunches when their peers do not.

But critics are concerned about how long free school meals would be offered by the state Department of Education, citing a lack of financial details and clarity about whether public charter schools would be included.

Neither of the House proposals specify whether free meals would continue past the 2023-24 school year.

Lawmakers are also still trying to figure how much the proposals would cost the state.

A National Push For Free School Meals

Hawaii is one of several states considering legislation this year to temporarily extend universal free school meals or make them a permanent part of public education. So far, only California, Maine and Colorado have made free meals permanent. 

When schools closed and students transitioned to remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic, Congress passed a law to keep students fed by temporarily eliminating fees for school food.

Since Covid-era federal funding ended for meals, there’s been a more significant push across the United States to offer free school meals to students, said Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit focused on eradicating hunger in the U.S.

FitzSimons said many schools don’t want to revert back to nutrition programs where there’s an eligibility cut-off for meals.

In Hawaii, a family of three needs to earn less than $34,437 a year to qualify for free school meals and $49,007 for reduced-price meals.

“Having kids sitting in a classroom hungry, they can’t focus, they can’t concentrate and they can’t behave,” FitzSimons said. “So by offering free meals to all students, you give all kids in the schools access to free meals and kids will be in the classroom ready to learn.” 

Holomua Elementary School student enjoys their lunch in the cafeteria.
Holomua Elementary School students ate their lunch separated by plastic barriers in 2021, when all schools in the state were providing free meals. Schools across the country scrambled to keep students fed during the pandemic. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

With free meals gone, schools across the country have accumulated more than $19 million in unpaid meal debt — money schools would have been paid by families — during the current school year, according to a survey from the School Nutrition Association. 

Daniela Spoto, director of anti-hunger programs at Hawaii Appleseed, said school meal debt in Hawaii was abnormally high last November at more than $90,000.

In past years, total student meal debt balances statewide have ranged from roughly $38,500 for the 2018-2019 school year to $22,700 for the 2019-2020 school year, according to DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani.

Kalani said about 50% of the 156,000 students enrolled in DOE-run schools eat school meals. 

“If this bill were to be made free for all, that capacity would be higher than what we’re currently serving,” Kalani said, adding that the department is currently reviewing the legislative proposals and hasn’t taken a stance on them yet. 

Bruce Voss, who chairs the state Board of Education, said offering free school meals is a great idea to consider. 

“Any expenditure like this that helps families and helps kids learn and helps keep them focused in school is a good investment for our state,” Voss said.

However, he also noted that lawmakers may be looking at other competing priorities this legislative session.

Unclear Costs

Rep. Scot Matayoshi, who introduced one of the House bills, said during his time teaching at Nanakuli High and Intermediate School he witnessed students go without lunch because they couldn’t afford it.

Hawaii passed a law in 2017 creating a grace period before schools can deny students meals because of unpaid bills, but some families are still struggling to pay for food.

Matayoshi said he recently talked to a constituent whose child was denied school lunch because of insufficient funds.

“Her child had to go hungry all day because the school didn’t call the parent and took back the lunch she was given,” Matayoshi said. “And that child probably didn’t learn that day because she went without lunch.”

Beefstew school lunch at Ala Wai Elementary School.
Some students don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals but still can’t afford to buy school lunch. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

Spoto said Matayoshi’s proposed bill has good intentions but raised concerns about whether it would include public charter schools, if the state will take advantage of federal dollars, and how long the program to offer free school meals would last.

Nicole Woo, director of research and economic policy at Hawaii Children’s Action Network, said offering free lunch would cost the state an estimated $26.7 million per year based on participation rates from the 2018-19 school year. Offering free breakfast and lunch would cost $31.4 million.

Matayoshi said he’s waiting for the DOE to give him the annual cost of providing free school lunches.

“Putting any number in there is a total shot in the dark, so we might as well leave it blank until we get more information from the feds and the DOE,” he said. 

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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