Free meals for students draw hundreds daily

For about an hour a day, cars full of families line up throughout Hawaii County to pick up breakfasts and lunches for their students as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps schools closed indefinitely.

Hilo Union School is one of 17 schools in the county participating in the Department of Education Grab-And-Go Meal Pick Up. The school has been distributing at least 300 meals during lunch a day, with more people coming each week.

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Hilo Union Vice Principal Tyson Tomono served lunches to families on Monday with a crew of teachers and volunteers putting together to-go boxes in an assembly line.

“I have noticed more and more people coming each day,” Tomono said between cars. “It’s a constant line, which helps us feel like we’re doing this right.”

Time and experience have helped Tomono and his teams create new modifications to help improve the line and make it as convenient and safe for families as possible.

Volunteers are equipped with masks and gloves as well as a makeshift “arm” that can carry meals and reach the driver’s seat of a car.

Schools participating in the meal pickup program in the Hilo-Waiakea Complex Area have been able to successfully serve well-rounded meals every week day, and the numbers keep going up, Superintendent Esther Kanehaiula, said.

“I think this is giving students the chance to leave the house and see teachers they may miss,” Kanehaiula said. “They all look forward to it, and it’s nice to see them when we can.”

Vibrant Hawaii Island, a community resource, has helped by donating food to the school district and putting together keiki care packages for families with the most need.

Schools plan to continue the breakfast and lunch meal pickup programs for as long as possible.

“With more people coming and sharing their thanks, it helps us see that we are filling a need,” Kanehaiula said.

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“The hardest part is that the kids can’t see us smiling under the mask.”

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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