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Food funds up, lunch services down

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The state Department of Human Services is concerned that the number of child-care providers offering free lunches to needy kids appears to be down again this summer, despite additional federal funding for the program.

Last summer, some providers chose not to provide a midday meal because the cost exceeded the federal reimbursement rate.

About 4,000 fewer children in Hawaii got free lunches through the summer food service program in 2009—down from about 10,600 in 2008—while more got breakfast, the cost of which was covered completely by the reimbursement.

The state wanted to deal with that decline and in May funneled $500,000 in federal recovery dollars to the summer food service program, administered by the Department of Education.

Federal stimulus funds cover costs associated with the program that are not covered by reimbursements. The money can also be used for enrichment programs, transportation and supplements for meals.

Sue Uyehara, director of the Office of Child Nutrition Programs at the Department of Education, said 20 of the program’s 24 providers are using the funds.

Figures are not yet available on how they are spending it. But in applying for the money, several providers said they did not intend to use it on lunch service—in some cases because by the time they got word the money was available, they had already completed contracts (for breakfasts or snacks) with food vendors.

She also said that providers might have had difficulty in switching gears quickly—from trimming spending to being able to spend it freely.

"The train was already out of the station with being lean, and then midstream we’re saying, no, you can do these more … enriched, enhanced services," Uyehara said.

Lillian Koller, Department of Human Services director, said she wants providers to know that the money is available for lunches. And she added that more federal funding could go to the program, if needed.

New providers cannot sign up for the program this summer, but existing providers can request more money.

"I’m hoping we can turn this around," said Koller. "We’re talking about a nutritious meal."

The money has to be spent by Sept. 30, but the federal government is looking at extending that deadline.

The funds for lunches is part of $49 million in stimulus dollars that the human services agency received to help low-income families in the islands. Of that, $6.4 million has not been allocated.

In addition to sending funds to summer food service, the state beefed up employment programs, increased child-care subsidies and sent aid to foster children.


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