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Kona charter school offers free breakfasts to help students start day off right

Updated: 
August 19, 2014 - 12:05am

The morning began as it always does in Anna Tosick’s classroom at Kona Pacific Public Charter School with speech exercises, singing and chanting. But before the pencils, papers and books appeared Monday, the eighth-graders sat at their desks enjoying a free healthy meal consisting of a frittata, rice, fruit and milk.

Kona Pacific is the first public school in Hawaii to offer breakfast in the classroom to all of its students, regardless of their ability to pay.

It joined the breakfast club, a movement that’s growing as more states, cities and school districts in the nation that have initiated similar breakfasting efforts. Such free morning meal programs have been shown to support academic achievement, improve children’s health and well-being, as well as help struggling families and those who must commute a long distance to school save time and money. These programs are also helping reduce the stigma attached to eating breakfast at school as being something only for poor children.

At Kona Pacific, approximately two-thirds of its students are at risk for being or are food insecure. Concerns were expressed for several students who hadn’t eaten prior to being given snacks and how those hungry students cannot be expected to learn or even concentrate for a long school day without proper nutrition, said Chris Hecht, the school’s executive director.

For the Kona Pacific staff, breakfast at school was more than food for thought; it was a sustainable solution to helping combat childhood hunger and promote lifelong healthy eating habits. They felt their school was in a unique position in playing a vital role in addressing a solvable problem and a basic human need, as well as making a meaningful impact in their community, Hecht said. Without hesitation and with steadfast passion, Kona Pacific took up this effort, despite its overall funding being down about a third since the school opened six years ago, he added.

With support of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, Kona Pacific piloted a breakfast program in three classrooms in May during the 2013-14 school year. During that three-week period, teachers observed “profound and visible changes” in the 72 students, including an increased ability to focus and participate in class, as well as increased attendance and punctuality, said Usha Kotner, school director.

Because of the pilot’s success, Kona Pacific decided to implement the Universal Breakfast In The Classroom program for all 230 students this year. The program, which began Monday, is again in partnership with Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, which is providing $24,000 for the start up and development, Hecht said.

This program is also the subject of an academic research study on the benefits of breakfast in the classroom for a range of educational, health and behavioral indices. Kona Pacific will be meticulously analyzing all aspects of the program, including the financial data, with the intention of sharing information with other public schools wanting to adopt similar programs or become ambassadors. Kona Pacific plans write up an official report and disseminate it statewide by April, Hecht said.

As “a pioneer in the field of school and community nutrition,” Kona Pacific is striving to be a model for Hawaii, which is ranked 45th in the nation for breakfast participation by low-income students.

“Kona Pacific’s breakfast program is a win-win situation, ensuring every child has the nutritional building blocks they need to learn, integrating valuable learning and teaching time around the meal table, and supporting our local farmers,” said state Sen. Jill Tokuda, who serves as majority whip and is the education committee chairwoman. “This could be a model that helps to better feed, educate and sustain Hawaii as we move forward into the future.”

Kona Pacific is taking advantage of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. More than 65 percent of Kona Pacific students qualify for free or reduced-cost meals and depend upon the federal program for a significant portion of their daily nutrition. Kona Pacific gets on average about $1.70 per student in federal reimbursements, Hecht said.

Kona Pacific anticipates paying between $16,000 and $18,000 a year feeding students breakfast. However, the school hopes to cut the cost in half by working on recipes and buying local food, as well as reducing waste and labor. Meals are prepared 10 miles away in a certified kitchen because the Kealakekua campus doesn’t have such a facility, Hecht said.

Besides figuring out the financial part, another challenge is getting locally grown food at affordable prices. Kona Pacific is always looking for local farmers to partner with and anyone wanting to donate food, Hecht said. To get involved, call the school office at 322-4905 or email info@kppcs.org.

Another key partner in this program is Adaptations Inc., a food hub in Kainaliu that sources entirely from local growers. Adaptations will raise the amount of locally grown food being purchased for the school from its current 12 percent to at least 20 percent over the coming year, Hecht said.

Kona Pacific also has plans to revitalize a 14-acre organic farm with the help of seven AmeriCorps volunteers, starting this October, as well as restore 8 acres of the ancient Kona Field System and use traditional cultivation techniques there to produce traditional foods. The food produced will be for the students and the community, Hecht said. These projects are being made possible, thanks to support and funding from the USDA and AmeriCorps, he added.

Munching away in Tosick’s classroom, some students took the 15 minutes allotted for breakfast to talk story with their neighbors while others used the time to review homework.

Halia Locke-Nascimento, 12, and classmate Grace Branham, 13, called the new program “pretty cool,” saying it’s an ideal solution particularly when you’re already running late or in a rush for school.

While they know breakfast is the most important meal of the day, the teens said busy morning routines often trump even the best intentions. Besides getting up on time, getting dressed and gathering items for school, Locke-Nascimento and Branham said they also have other duties, such as feeding beloved pets or helping a sibling. “Not having to think about breakfast will make things a lot easier,” Branham added.

For Locke-Nascimento, this shared meal only adds to the positive environment she enjoys about her school.

“At Kona Pacific, we’re like one big family and these breakfasts help bring us all together and build an even bigger sense of community,” she said.