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Editorial | Island Voices

DOE did not ‘bungle’ handling of summer lunch program

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The state Department of Education has had a long and constructive relationship with the state Department of Human Services and we are confident it will continue.

That relationship recently extended to using American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus funds, given to Hawaii through DHS, to help pay for programs that assist needy families.

Good cooperation and collaboration between the two departments is essential, especially when it comes to managing federal stimulus funds, which come with strict rules for disbursement. That’s why we were disappointed in DHS Director Lillian Koller’s recent criticisms of DOE’s handling of the funds ("DOE’s bungling of lunch program shows need for comprehensive audit," Star-Advertiser, Aug. 9). She failed to include key facts:

» It was DOE that brought to DHS’ attention the possibility of using federal stimulus funds for summer meal programs.

» During a DOE-initiated meeting on April 20, DHS disclosed that one of its contractors had returned $7 million in federal stimulus funds. DHS then orally offered the DOE $1 million for its Summer Food Services Program, about a month before summer began for public school students.

» The lapse date for ARRA’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Emergency Contingency Funds is Sept. 30.

» Due to the late offer, the DOE accepted $500,000. By May 10, the DOE Office of Hawaii Child Nutrition Programs had developed a Scope of Work and solicited a contractor to develop protocols for the new program, necessary forms to claim TANF ECF reimbursements, and training for potential sponsors to ensure the implementation of this fast-tracked project and compliance with federal regulations, including strict ARRA reporting requirements.

» The Memorandum of Agreement between DOE and DHS was fully executed on May 27, 2010.

ALTERING government contracts requires legal review and multiple signatures. This process takes up to 60 days, not one or two days as professed by Koller. With summer starting for public school students on May 27, time did not allow the SFSP sponsors to initiate a new formal bid for vended meal service or to change the existing food service contract terms with the DOE.

Contradicting federal guidance to promote program access, Koller also asserts the DOE should expand its program "to children with household incomes up to 600 percent of the federal poverty level," which would require all student participants to submit an application to receive free summer meals. What Koller failed to note is that the DOE offered 73 "open sites" across the state this past summer. An "open site" meant any child 18 years and younger, regardless of household income, was offered free breakfast and/or lunch meals without having to apply.

This summer, DOE offered free meals to youth at the 73 sites with final numbers expected to exceed 2009’s. In 2008, 199,008 summer meals were served. That meal number increased substantially in the summer of 2009 to 339,673 meals.

Hawaii’s efforts were praised by the federal government. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized Hawaii’s DOE School Food Services Branch with the distinguished Sunshine Award for its expanded food services to youth.

Despite the extremely short lead time, the DOE formalized its partnership with DHS because the potential to do more for the children of Hawaii was a worthy objective. Refocusing on what is right and what needs to be done is ultimately a more constructive way to expend our energies and assist our island community.

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