Hawaii ranks last in participation rate for school breakfast programs

HILO — Not enough students in Hawaii are getting the most important meal of the day.

Less than 40 percent of Hawaii students who receive free or reduced-cost school lunches also participate in school breakfast programs, a lower rate than all but one state in the union, according to a report from the Food Research and Action Center, a nationwide nonprofit dedicated to combating hunger and undernutrition.


Hawaii ranked 50th out of all states and the District of Columbia during the 2017-18 school year, beating out only Utah. That’s a drop from the previous school year, when Hawaii ranked 49th.

The percentage of Hawaii students in school breakfast programs is far below the top-ranked states. In West Virginia, the top-ranked state, more than 80 percent of students involved in free and reduced-cost lunch programs also participate in breakfast programs.

Nicole Woo, policy analyst for the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said there is no easy answer for why Hawaii is so far below other states. However, the high poverty rates in the state mean ensuring more students have access to healthy meals is imperative.

“There are a lot of things Hawaii’s doing right, actually,” Woo said, explaining that all schools in the state have a breakfast program, which is not the case for all states, thanks to work by the Department of Education. Nonetheless, Woo said, the state can “definitely do a lot better.”

“We’ve got to do a much better job,” said Chad Farias, area superintendent for the Hilo-Waiakea and Ka‘u-Keaau-Pahoa complex areas. “We see a lot of kids coming in with dollar-menu breakfasts from McDonalds.”

Woo said if Hawaii were to increase its participation rate to 70 percent, it would mean 20,000 more students would be eating a healthy breakfast each day.

Farias said part of the problem with school breakfast programs is that currently they occur too early in the day. By having breakfast as a formal cafeteria meal before class, students arriving late can easily miss the meal while other students might simply prefer to play with friends regardless of how hungry they are.

Some mainland schools have “been shaking things up” by having breakfast in the classroom during first period, Woo said, which allows all students to participate while reducing class disruptions. This solution has been the most successful strategy in improving participation, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Farias said there have been “some conversations” about doing the same in Hawaii.

Other schools looked at adjusting the menu itself. While Woo said there are stringent nutritional requirements for school meals, she added there is room to tweak the menu to offer more appealing items, while other schools offer “grab and go” options, allowing for greater food selections.

Woo said data from 2015 suggests the Big Island is somewhat better at breakfast participation than other islands, which she attributed to the island’s charter schools — “a lot of which really focus on food and nutrition” — as well as strong farm to school programs that bring locally grown foods to cafeterias.

But compared to the rest of the nation’s participation rates, all of the state’s programs are lacking, Woo said.


“It’s like, you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” Woo said.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

  1. Big ideas February 16, 2019 7:10 am

    If they aren’t eating the meal – then they apparently don’t need it. They don’t stave themselves on purpose. We can reduce the spending on this program.

    1. Joan Sheldon February 16, 2019 11:57 am

      Big ideas.. you don’t sound like a mother.. kids will play rather than eat even if they are hungry. Having all kids eat in 1st period classroom is the best idea to over one the lack of participation. I hope the schools will adopt that asap.

      1. Big ideas February 16, 2019 1:39 pm

        Parents should feed their kids instead of buying the latest Apple phone…period!

        1. KonaDude February 18, 2019 7:16 am

          You can lead a horse to water……(.Y.)

        2. Joan Sheldon February 18, 2019 7:38 am

          Again, big Ideas…you don’t understand the problem. YOU may have the money to buy an Apple phone, but poor people don’t have the phone OR money enough to buy their kids 3 meals a day. Think about how you look when you judge people and use the word SHOULD.

  2. J_Maritime February 16, 2019 6:55 pm

    The effort to help our kids get nutrition and to learn is an investment that will pay huge dividends in the future. Our kids ARE our future. Evey effort to help them make better choices on food and learning is so important. We should all be concerned that we rank last in the country in this effort.

  3. DragonLady February 17, 2019 10:48 am

    Use to work at the largest elementary school in Hawaii, where most of the kids were eligible for free lunch and breakfast… most of the students who qualified for free breakfast don’t make it to school in time to eat it. Partial problem is the parents getting the kids to school early enough to even get breakfast. Interesting concept of making first class period the time to eat breakfast, but what about kids that do not get free breakfast? Do they bring their own breakfast to eat then? Hmmm

    1. Joan Sheldon February 18, 2019 7:32 am

      I can see where that could be a problem if handled in a manner that would look like segregation. So this is the thought that came to me: A great opportunity learning to share: the kids that get free breakfast sits AMONG kids that had breakfast at home, so they SHARE something with one sitting next to them that already ate…. A grape, a piece of fruit etc. (like a dessert) for the kid that ate. Or a kid could say, no, I’m not hungry. If a kid is not hungry, they could save the breakfast for a snack at breaktime or between classes. No one should be forced to do anything, but maybe share or give to another… A kid who ate might also bring something from home to share… IT could work out beautifully if done right…. give it a try.

      1. DragonLady February 18, 2019 8:13 am

        Great idea but as usual, regulations interfere with common sense. I think there is some regulation where those with free lunch & breakfast cannot share it with others. We use to walk by the cafeteria and see all the waste and asked if we could keep the uneaten or unopened milk, to give to other kids who were still hungry. We were told a DEFINITE NO, it has to be thrown away if the child didn’t eat it. What a waste… Wish they could give it to the homeless or to pig farmers as slop, but I guess they are afraid they would get sued if they get sick.

        1. Joan Sheldon February 18, 2019 8:51 am

          FEAR is ridiculous here. No law against a kid sharing a cookie from his lunch that he brings from home and I have never heard of any one suing anyone for sharing food with other kids….so these DICTATORS of stupid rules need to be overcome and some sense brought into overcoming waste in schools. Fight it.. Go to meetings PTA, school Boards….. we cant let unreasonable stupid rules Run our children’s lives.

          1. DragonLady February 18, 2019 9:35 am

            Agree you 100%. I think those rules came from the program that subsidized the free food. Yup, the *dictators* are attempting to control us all. So sad

  4. Rock108 February 17, 2019 12:03 pm

    Let’s look at the educational rank of the best breakfast state here: West Virginia. Forbes ranked them 49 out of 50. So while West Virginia is the best at getting poor kids to eat breakfast, their education clearly isn’t a priority. Before we rush to change, let’s keep our priorities straight. Make the food more appealing, yes, but don’t sacrifice education for a “forced breakfast period.” As a teacher, I sometimes bring food for my first group of kids. Some just don’t have the appetite. Why force them?

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