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 firstname.lastname@example.org.