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Feeding Kids Can Be Tough For Some Hawaii Charter Schools

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Feeding Kids Can Be Tough For Some Hawaii Charter Schools

May 30, 2024 | 8:26 am ET
By Megan Tagami/Civil Beat
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When SEEQS shared a campus with Kaimuki High School, students could purchase lunches produced by the high school. The school now partners with a local vendor to deliver meals to its Nuuanu campus. (Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017)
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When SEEQS shared a campus with Kaimuki High School, students could purchase lunches produced by the high school. The school now partners with a local vendor to deliver meals to its Nuuanu campus. (Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017)

At the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science, school lunches are prepared out of a commercial kitchen sitting in a 60-foot trailer. Here, the charter school produces meals ranging from spinach quiche for breakfast to chicken alfredo and freshly baked focaccia rolls for lunch. 

The meals, which are provided free of cost to families through a combination of federal dollars and the school’s own funds, provide a critical source of nutrition for children. Nearly two-thirds of students at the school come from low-income families.

Not all charter schools have the same resources or capacity as HAAS, said principal Steve Hirakami. The Big Island school is one of the largest charters in the state, enrolling over 700 students, but smaller campuses don’t always have the funds or kitchen space to produce meals on-site, Hirakami added. 

“We’re pretty fortunate to have the food that we have,” Hirakami said. Before HAAS purchased its kitchen trailer in 2012, the school rented a restaurant’s kitchen to prepare student lunches in the early morning hours.

Hawaii’s 37 charter schools are tuition-free and open to all families. But unlike schools operated by the Hawaii Department of Education, charters don’t receive state money specifically for school lunches. If charters want to provide school meals, they can receive some money by participating in the National School Lunch Program, but the federal funds often don’t cover the full costs of providing meals.

Any additional money that charters spend on meals must come from the same budget that covers teacher salaries, campus facilities and classroom resources, said Ed Noh, executive director of the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission. 

In the last academic year, the state provided DOE with roughly $50 million to run its meals program in nearly 260 schools. The Legislature recently appropriated an additional $38 million to the department to account for the rising cost of food.     

Charter schools aren’t required to have their own meal programs, and Noh said the commission doesn’t collect data on how many campuses offer lunches. But, he said, smaller schools may ask their students to bring home lunch because their campuses don’t have the necessary kitchen space or funding. 

“It is an equity issue,” Noh said. “We are a public school system.” 

In Hawaii, roughly 40% of charter school students and 50% of DOE students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under federal guidelines that are also used to measure poverty in schools.

Shortfalls in Funding

Eighth-grader Elliot Zysman said he grew up eating school lunch almost every day. As a former student at Manoa Elementary, he appreciated having a hot meal readily available. 

“I’ve always been really big on school lunch,” said Zysman, whose mother, Deborah Zysman, serves as the executive director of the Hawaii Children’s Action Network. 

But when he moved to the School for Examining Essential Questions of Sustainability, he was disappointed that the charter school didn’t provide meals. It was hard to pack home lunches that were easy to make and would stay fresh throughout the day, he added. 

SEEQS doesn’t have a cafeteria or kitchen staff, but the school recognized that some families struggled with food insecurity, said executive director Buffy Cushman-Patz.

In January, SEEQS began partnering with a local vendor, The Happy Bento, to provide pre-packaged meals to the Nuuanu campus. Roughly a third of children opt into the lunch service, Cushman-Patz said, although the number of participating students could grow next year.

At SEEQS, the full cost of a Happy Bento lunch is $6.85, but the school provides meals at free or reduced prices for low-income students. Roughly two-thirds of students currently participating in SEEQS’ meal service qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. 

“There were students who clearly needed it,” Cushman-Patz said. She estimates the school will spend $30,000 each year providing meals through The Happy Bento.

SEEQS, along with 18 other charter schools, participate in the federal government’s National School Lunch Program. By complying with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition requirements for school lunches, campuses can receive federal funds helping to cover the costs of their meal programs. 

In return, participating schools must offer lunches free or at a reduced price to low-income students. 

But the federal reimbursement doesn’t cover the full costs of providing meals, said Roberta Souza, the administrative services assistant and food service coordinator at Ke Ana Laahana charter school. 

On the Big Island, Ke Ana Laahana partners with Keaukaha Elementary, a DOE school, to provide breakfast and lunch to its students. As the smallest charter in the state, Ke Ana Laahana doesn’t have its own cafeteria, so students take a five-minute walk to eat the meals prepared and served at Keaukaha Elementary. 

Ke Ana Laahana provides free meals to all of its students because of its large low-income population. While the school qualifies for federal funding, Souza estimates that Ke Ana Laahana still pays the DOE $10,000 each year so their students can eat at Keaukaha Elementary. 

It’s a significant expense for a school with an enrollment of 26, said executive director Mapuana Waipa, but it’s important for her students to receive the same meals as any other child in public school. 

“No child should have to go without,” Waipa said. 

Maintaining Meal Oversight

While convenient, partnerships with DOE schools aren’t an option for all charters. 

At Ka Umeke Kaeo, director of operations Louisa Lee said a local vendor provides pre-packaged breakfasts and lunches to students on a daily basis. Neighboring DOE schools could also provide Ka Umeke with meals, but Lee said it would be more expensive to purchase meals through the department than to work with an outside vendor.    

She would also need a car and staff member to pick up lunches from the DOE and deliver them to Ka Umeke’s three Big Island campuses, and the school doesn’t have those resources available, Lee added. 

Already, Lee estimates that the school spends $75,000 each year to cover the costs of providing free meals to all students. Roughly 60% of Ka Umeke’s students are considered low-income.

Lee said she would appreciate receiving more state funding for school meals, but it’s important for charters to maintain autonomy over what they include in their lunches. As a Hawaiian-focused charter school, she added, she wants to expose her students to local produce and ensure they’re eating nutritious meals.

“Money aside, we want kids to eat,” Lee said. 

Eighteen charter schools in Hawaii don’t participate in the National School Lunch Program, meaning they don’t need to comply with USDA meal guidelines but are also ineligible to receive federal funds for their food programs.

Some charters may not participate because they don’t offer school meals, but others, like Kula Aupuni Niihau A Kahelelani Aloha on Kauai, have actively withdrawn from the program.

Hedy Sullivan, director of KANAKA, said her school struggled to find meals that children would enjoy under the nutritional requirements of the National School Lunch Program. She estimates that the school previously wasted five gallons of food every day while participating in the program. 

Now, Sullivan said, she sets KANAKA’s menu and cooks the lunches herself. She includes as many vegetables as possible in her meals, and she tries to incorporate fresh produce in lunches like papaya chicken. 

Without federal funding, Sullivan estimates the school spends up to $25,000 each year to provide free lunch to its 50 students. She added that she would like to hire a cook in the future, but for now, she’s satisfied with knowing that she’s feeding her students nutritious meals every day.  

“We’re doing what we think is right for our students,” Sullivan said. 

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

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