‘It needs to stop’

Inappropriate. Foolish. Even mind boggling.

That’s how Kauai County Council members on Wednesday described a state Department of Education policy that allows for students to have school lunches taken away and even thrown out as a result of insufficient account balances.

Councilman Mel Rapozo, the man behind a measure aimed at preventing the denial of school meals, said that like most things, it’s not a financial issue, rather a priority.

“When you pay $45,000 to paint (Gov. Neil) Abercrombie’s portrait to put up at the State Capitol, and you’re telling us, ‘Oh, it’s $800,’” Rapozo said, referring to the negative lunch account balance for the month of August for all Kauai public schools combined, “It’s not a money issue. Because do we need that stinking portrait of Gov. Abercrombie? Hell no! Hell no. But these kids should be eating.”

The council voted unanimously Wednesday to pass Rapozo’s resolution. While it requires nothing, it urges the state of Hawaii, the DOE and parents and guardians to address the situation and come up with a solution.

Rapozo said that, despite what DOE officials have said, the problem is real and that he said he is hearing from more and more Kauai parents every day.

“We got kids that are going up in the (cafeteria) line, getting their plates, sitting down, being tapped on the shoulder and (told), ‘Give me your plate, you don’t have enough money,’” he said. “What are we doing?”

The council said the DOE policy must be changed. It said punishing and humiliating a child for something that is ultimately beyond his or her control is unacceptable.

All 15 Kauai public schools follow the “Negative Balances for School Meals” policy. It 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. Lunches are denied once an account drops below around -$10.

Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura said she found it “horrifying” to think about a child picking up a lunch in the cafeteria only to have it taken and thrown in the garbage.

“It comes across as a really broken system,” she told Kauai Complex Area Superintendent William Arakaki. “It doesn’t reflect any of the values that we want our school system to reflect.”

Contradicting previous comments made by both himself and DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz, Arakaki said food is disposed of — although not in front of the child — if it has been touched by a child who is in that negative threshold.

“Food safety is a big issue,” Arakaki said during the meeting.

In an email to The Garden Island Monday, Dela Cruz wrote, “There is no ‘throwing away of lunches’ as you suggest.”

On Wednesday, however, she wrote, “Disposing of lunches that have been touched is for safety reasons.”

Arakaki said the DOE will explore options, including changing cafeteria lines so that students swipe their ID cards prior to picking up a lunch, instead of after, which would avoid the need to toss out food.

During the meeting, Rapozo read aloud several messages he received this week from parents who claim their children have experienced such incidents. After reading one from the parent of a 5-year-old student at Wilcox Elementary, he said, “While that kid was denied his lunch, some inmate at the jail got fed well.”

The latest incident occurred as recently as Monday, according to Rapozo. He said throwing away a meal in order to make a point, resulting in a student being left hungry, is “foolish.”

Arakaki testified during the meeting that all Kauai school principals, teachers and staff care deeply about students being fed, but that there are policies, rules and regulations that must be followed.

“There are (incidents) where students, you know, are denied lunches, and it’s because of policy,” he said.

Arakaki said one of the challenges DOE faces is ensuring parents take responsibility so that the schools are not left with a deficit at the end of the year. The department encourages eligible parents to take advantage of the free and reduced price meal program.

Students without free and reduced lunch pay between $2.25 or $2.50 per meal, depending on their grade level. The reduced lunch price is $0.40. Once an account drops to between -$10 and -$15, a student is denied meals, according to Arakaki.

Kauai schools serve nearly 100,000 lunches per year. Fifty percent of the approximately 9,400 students are on the free and reduced lunch program. While each month varies, the negative balance in August for the entire island was $859.35, with nine of 15 schools reporting deficits, according to Arakaki.

At the end of the 2013-14 school year, there was reportedly a $5,630 balance.

Arakaki said the question is how to clear all deficits by the end of the year while not leaving anyone behind. He assured the council that community concerns have been heard and options to address the matter would be explored.

Councilman Gary Hooser said it is “absolutely shameful” that the state of Hawaii, with its massive budget, cannot fund $800 or $5,000 to make sure students have meals.

Stacey Gillette, coordinator of Kauai Planning and Action Alliance’s Keiki to Career program, came to Wednesday’s meeting to announce she had secured funding from a private donor to cover the current balance. She said the donor wanted to remain anonymous but shared his sentiment that “absolutely no student should go without a meal at school.”

Councilman Mason Chock said that when it comes to the health of the Kauai community, people must be willing to step beyond policies.

“Our public servants need to be empowered enough to, when they see something happen, like lunches being thrown away and students being shamed or feeling emotion and distress because of it, especially when they have health issues, that they should be willing and able to step up and say something about it,” he said. “And I’m not just talking about at the DOE, I’m talking about everywhere in our communities.”

Rapozo said he feels the solution is simple — change the existing DOE policy to say that no child will be denied lunch.

“I hope this gets statewide publicity,” he said, visually frustrated. “And to the people who think this is political pandering, up yours! I found out in May. I didn’t pick the date. I didn’t start it on Facebook. Somebody came to me. And I’m proud that we can sit here as councilmen and again deal with the state’s shortcomings.”

Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

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