Furlough days mean missed meals


POSTED: Monday, September 28, 2009

Over the weekend, Darlene Muraoka's family ate pizza for dinner, donated by a Christian group for residents at the Next Step homeless shelter in Kakaako.

Every night, the shelter provides a free dinner to residents—the only meal of the day for some and one that helps low-income families such as Muraoka's save money while trying to subsist.

Muraoka's four children also eat free breakfast and lunch five days a week at school. But with the state instituting 17 school furlough days this year to meet a budget shortfall, Muraoka and families like hers wonder how they'll feed their children when schools are closed.

“;We'll definitely feel it,”; Muraoka said. “;Especially towards the end of the month when everyone's so extremely broke. When they go to school, it's such a relief because you know they're going to get breakfast and lunch.”;

The Department of Education serves about 100,000 cafeteria meals daily. About 70,000 students, or 40 percent of the public school population, eat free or discounted meals, according to school officials.

Children from families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level—$40,793 for a family of four—are eligible for discounted meals. Some eat both breakfast and lunch.

The Department of Education is aware of the concern and is looking at how to help those children, said Pat Hamamoto, schools superintendent.

“;We're exploring the different options that will be available, knowing full well that we will have to follow the federal guidelines,”; she said yesterday.

Federal funding covers the discount or cost of free meals in public schools.

In the 2006-2007 school year, the latest for which figures are available, Hawaii received $40 million in federal money to pay for school meals.

Glenna Owens, director of School Food Services, said federal funding for meals can be used only when schools are open, and parents will be responsible for feeding their children on furlough days. “;On furlough days, there's no school in session so there is no obligation for the department to feed children,”; she said. “;There is no option.”;

Feeding a child a federally subsidized meal when school is closed would require identifying that child to an outside agency, which is against the policy to receive federal funding, she said.

Other school districts have also instated furlough days, and the federal government hasn't provided an option to pay for subsidized meals on those days, she said.

Dick Grimm, president of the Hawaii Foodbank, said it remains unclear how school closures will affect food demand. “;I think it's too early,”; he said.

The agency's advisory committee will discuss the issue next week.

He expects the closures won't be a great stress on the agency's distribution, which is usually heavier the last two weeks each month as people run out of food stamps.

At Next Step shelter, 43 of the nearly 200 people in residence are children.

Muraoka saves about $60 a day when her children eat free school meals. In addition, her family receives about $1,200 in food stamps monthly, which barely lasts the month.

She said food from the Hawaii Foodbank is unprepared, and the family doesn't have a kitchen to cook it. She added she will miss the school meals. “;It's one less thing to worry about.”;