LIHUE — It started with an online post in May by a parent of a Waimea Canyon Middle School student.
“Kids at (WCMS) without sufficient funds in their lunch account have been ordered to dump their lunch according to several students,” the parent wrote. “Is this acceptable?”
Those words, and the conversation that has followed, pushed Kauai County Councilman Mel Rapozo to draft a resolution aimed at ensuring no child is denied a meal, regardless of their lunch account status.
“The bottom line is we cannot allow these kids to go without food,” he said, adding that studies clearly show children cannot concentrate properly when hungry.
Resolution 2014-44, which Rapozo is scheduled to introduce during the Kauai County Council’s meeting on Wednesday, does not mandate anything. Rather, it urges cooperation by the state, the DOE and parents and guardians to prevent students from being denied school meals.
“I’m more concerned about the kids who are going to school on an empty stomach,” Rapozo said. “For some of these kids, this is their only real meal.”
The issue not only results in children being punished for something that is not their fault, but leaves them feeling humiliated, according to Rapozo.
“Can you imagine the trauma?” he asked of a child being told by a cafeteria monitor — in front of his or her friends — that they can’t have a lunch.
In a written response Monday, DOE Director of Communications Donalyn Dela Cruz said the department encourages eligible parents to take advantage of the free and reduced price meal program.
“For families who encounter financial challenges in paying for school meals, we request that they contact the school as soon as possible, before student lunch accounts reach a zero balance,” she wrote in an email.
Dela Cruz did not respond to The Garden Island’s question about whether the DOE would consider researching solutions to keep school personnel from having to deny school meals in the future, as requested by Rapozo’s resolution.
On May 2, Rapozo outlined his concerns in separate letters to Glenna Owens, director of DOE’s School Food Services Branch, WCMS Principal Melissa Speetjens and Kauai Complex Area Superintendent William Arakaki.
“I find this type of behavior disheartening towards our children, who deserve all the support we as adults can provide,” he wrote to Arakaki.
In a response July 1, Arakaki said public schools on Kauai follow the “Negative Balances for School Meals” policy, which requires that if a student has a negative balance, school personnel contact the parent or guardian to inform them that payment must be made the following day or a home lunch should be sent with the child.
The schools also provide notification for low account balances, which Arakaki says ensures parents and students are aware of their account status before any action is taken once a student surpasses the school’s negative balance threshold of five lunches.
“We do not dispose of lunches due to zero or negative balances,” Arakaki wrote in his response. “Schools must adhere to guidelines to (ensure) safe handling during meal service for students in the serving line. If a lunch has been compromised, cafeteria staff will set the lunch aside and dispose as needed after the lunch service period.”
Arakaki added that school staff involved with the notification and handling of student meal services are professional, and take care when addressing the matter with a child and parent or guardian.
“It is done discreetly, respectfully and with sensitivity,” he wrote. “We do not embarrass or draw attention to the student or situation.”
In her response, dated May 12, Owens said the lunch account negative balance for Kauai public schools, at that time, was $5,630.
“I would be interested in hearing your ideas on how we might mitigate these large negative balances, and what we might do to bring about public awareness on the responsibilities of parents who habitually send their children to school with no lunch money, no home lunch, and expect ‘someone’ to make sure their child is fed,” she wrote.
Rapozo said the $5,630 figure seems low, and that his suggestion would be to deal with unpaid lunch accounts like any student obligation — at the end of the year.
The solution, he said, is simple — change the policy so that no student is ever left hungry at school.
“It’s wrong,” he said. “It’s outright wrong.”
Rapozo followed up with a second letter to Owens and Arakaki Aug. 22, expressing his “utter disbelief” that another child, this time at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School, had been denied lunch. Arakaki responded Sept. 4 and said that situation was the result of a misunderstanding — that the student involved was told she needed to return a bottle of water, not her lunch.
“The school cashier informed the student that bottled water could not be purchased because her account does not cover the cost of an ala carte item,” he wrote. “Students must have funds in their account to purchase ala carte items such as bottled water. The student did not take her lunch.”
In a letter to the editor published in The Garden Island in February, Lihue resident Chandra Rivers said she had kept quiet about the issue long enough.
“My 13-year-old has had her lunch taken away from her at least four times at her middle school here on Kauai due to an insufficient lunch account,” she wrote.
Rivers added she was upset her daughter was humiliated in front of her peers at school and she didn’t get to eat.
“She told me she had math next and she was really hungry this last time,” she wrote of her daughter. “And then to find out that it happened multiple times, something should be done.”
Arakaki wrote to Rapozo that Kauai school principals continue to ask the Parent Teacher Student Association and other funding sources to support students to participate in the meal service program.
Wednesday’s council meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. in the Historic County Building.