DOE cracks down on lunches
School officials try to find alternatives to get parents to pay their fair share
Hawaii's schools are required under federal guidelines to provide students with nutritious and low-cost meals, but what happens when parents repeatedly fail to pay their own child's fair share?
The answer, at some public schools, is to provide a stripped-down meal usually consisting of a roll and a drink until parents pay up under a policy that leaves hungry children stuck in the middle.
KIDS MEAL SANCTIONS
» The standard lunch price is $1, and low-income students are charged either the reduced price of 20 cents or nothing.
» If parents fall behind in payment, schools send home notices or place calls.
» If the bill is still not addressed, some schools will provide a stripped-down meal usually consisting of a roll and a drink until parents pay up.
"We certainly don't like to do it," said Kanoelani Elementary School Principal Sandy Ahu, who nonetheless adds that schools need to have some sort of consequences in place.
The "alternate lunch" varies from school to school but generally consists of a starch such as crackers, a piece of bread, or a cinnamon roll, and either juice, milk or water -- far from what is required under the balanced-meal guidelines of the National School Lunch Program.
The practice has been around for years and Board of Education member Mary Cochran is, well, fed up.
At a meeting tomorrow of the board's Special Programs committee that she chairs, Cochran plans to take issue with Department of Education officials over the matter.
Cochran blames "deadbeat" parents but said the department needs to devise a real solution.
"My concern is that there are different avenues that aren't being explored. All children should be provided lunch, and if schools can't be creative enough to ensure that happens, they shouldn't penalize the children," Cochran said.
A number of school officials contacted said that every effort is made to prevent things getting to the "alternate lunch" stage. This may include maintaining funds, often provided by the school's PTA, specifically to help empty-pocketed students.
At Kanoelani Elementary, school staff routinely pay for lunches out of their own pockets or bring in food for kids, Ahu said.
Meanwhile, schools will send home notices or place calls to parents informing them of the loans, or children are sent to the school office to phone parents asking them to bring in the money.
"I don't really agree even with that because it means you've got a child sitting there, hungry and embarrassed," said Greg Chilson, president of Kanoelani's PTA.
In most cases, the issue is soon resolved, said Patricia Dang, principal of Kapalama Elementary, whose staff notify parents when the balance on their child's meal card is getting low. If it gets to zero, staff step up the calls to parents, aunties and uncles to get the child fed.
"It's a burden on staff but we feel it's necessary. Students need to have something in their tummies before they can learn," she said.
The cost to schools can add up, according to Terri-Jean Kam-Ogawa, acting director of the department's School Food Services Branch, who noted that one school had $5,000 in outstanding lunch-money loans at one time.
"If schools don't have the money to cover those costs, it comes out of general funds, which takes away from money for education," she said.
The use of "alternate lunches" seems confined to the elementary school level since older students will generally have some pocket change to cover lunch on a daily basis, she said.
Often the problem stems from parents, typically immigrants, not knowing they needed to fill out paperwork to qualify their child for the free or reduced-price lunches available to lower-income students.
The standard lunch price is $1, but low-income students are charged either the reduced price of 20 cents, or nothing at all, depending on their family's income. Schools then must seek federal reimbursement to cover the cost of providing the lunches.
But some parents abuse school generosity, Kam-Ogawa said.
"We had one parent whose child ran up a debt of $75 and then the parent called people at the school 'fools' for loaning $75 to a child. But they (the parent) knew what was going on," she said.
Cochran wants a new system in place. She suggested such drastic steps as turning over debts to a collection agency or even reporting deadbeat parents to Child Protective Services.
"If parents send a child to school with no food and no money for food, to me, that's child abuse," she said.
Randy Moore, acting director of the department's Office of Business Services, said he plans to present some ideas tomorrow that he hopes the board will find palatable, but offered no details.
Kanoelani Elementary's Ahu said some outside-the-box thinking is needed.
"We understand that parents are busy working and lunch money is sometimes overlooked, but we want to make sure all our kids get the nutrition they need," she said.