Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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EditorialIsland Voices

DOE’s bungling of lunch program shows need for comprehensive audit

As The Star-Advertiser reported ("Food funds up, lunch services down," July 9), there was plenty of federal money to feed hungry school children this summer. But instead of being served free and nutritious lunches, most of these students received only low-cost breakfasts and snacks.

This situation is unfortunate — and it was completely avoidable.

Millions of federal stimulus dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) were available to feed our keiki this summer. So much money was available, in fact, that all needy children — and even their parents — could have received healthy lunches, breakfasts and snacks all summer long.

The problem was, money to pay for those meals never made it out of the state Department of Education bureaucracy. Federal funds sat idle while children went hungry and DOE offered incredulous explanations.

A DOE official initially told the Star-Advertiser that food vendors "could not afford the out-of-pocket cost" of participating in the summer meals program because the federal reimbursement rate was capped too low at $3.80 per meal ("High costs cut free lunches for needy kids in summer," July 6).

When the Department of Human Services informed the reporter that DHS had agreed to cover all expenses beyond the $3.80 cap, DOE suddenly changed its story.

Next we were told in a July 9 news article that reimbursement was never the issue. Instead, DOE said its vendors were to blame because they "might have had difficulty in switching gears quickly — from trimming spending to being able to spend freely."

That’s a flimsy excuse for inaction. DOE is well aware that contracts with vendors can be modified in a day or two.

This sad and infuriating story began in May when DHS signed an agreement with the DOE Office of Child Nutrition Program. At that time, DHS urged DOE to quickly expand its annual summer meals program. And because millions of federal stimulus dollars were available, DHS literally offered a blank check to cover all expenses.

It soon became obvious, however, that DOE was not interested in expanding the meals program. For example, DOE could have provided free food to children with household incomes up to 600 percent of the federal poverty level. Instead, DOE chose to keep the income limit at a paltry 185 percent.

To illustrate what that means, a child in a four-member household earning $152,208 annually could have received free meals fully paid with federal dollars. But because DOE declined to expand eligibility, a child in a four-person family cannot exceed $46,916 in annual income to get a free meal.

DHS offered millions of ARRA federal dollars to operate the food program this summer, but DOE asked for only $500,000.

DHS also agreed to pay for everything DOE wanted to make this summer’s program a resounding success.

Specifically, DHS agreed to:

» Pay meal costs beyond the normal $3.80 reimbursement cap;

» Pay for parents of eligible children to receive free meals;

» Pay for short-term leased or rented space needed to provide or prepare meals;

» Pay for equipment used to prepare meals;

» Pay to transport children and food to the feeding sites;

» Pay for recreational activities that attract children to feeding sites; and

» Pay the cost of staff and staff support to prepare the meals, provide supervision and implement the program.

In other words, DHS did not want this summer to be a repeat of 2009 when 4,000 fewer children received free lunches compared to the year before. DHS wanted the summer of 2010 to be "a summer like no other" by investing ARRA federal funds in our communities statewide and making sure every child and parent had enough to eat.

The reluctance of the DOE to help hungry families underscores the need for an independent financial and management audit of this bureaucracy, as called for by Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona. Despite receiving far more taxpayer money than any other state agency, DOE has not undergone a comprehensive audit since 1973.

The urgent need for probing this bureaucracy’s books and management practices cannot be more apparent, as DOE has — once again — exposed its shortcomings by squandering a golden opportunity to feed hungry kids.

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