Nutrition Programs Earn Another Award for Kona Pacific

– by Pat Gee, Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 9/24/17

Kona Pacific Public Charter School, a pioneer in serving free breakfast in certain Hawaii public schools, was recognized on Friday for cooking and delivering free lunches to hungry kids in West Hawaii during the summer recess since 2015.

School and project director Chris Hecht received the Good Apple Award from the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice at the 6th Annual Artists for Appleseed Dinner, Art Exhibition and Sale at a private club.

Hecht co-founded Kona Pacific, the first public school in 2008 to offer a Waldorf education, and was the prime mover behind the free breakfast and summer nutrition programs. The Kealakekua school serves about 240 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, more than half of them qualifying for free or reduced-priced meals, a key indicator of poverty levels.

The school was the first in the state to offer a universal breakfast program in 2014, with assistance from Appleseed. It paved the way for all students at 52 public schools in low-income areas to receive free breakfast and lunch, regardless of their family’s ability to pay, in the 2017-18 school year.

In 2015, when Hecht learned that feeding programs would be suspended for June and July during the summer break, “I couldn’t sleep at night thinking about kids going hungry,” he said. He and his development team obtained a $28,000 grant from Walmart and bought two used vans to deliver the food they made to kids at six sites, include canoe club practices and low-income housing complexes, knowing that the successful programs were the ones that went to where children congregated, Hecht added.

“Each day of the program, Kona Pacific prepared and distributed 125 healthy, federally reimbursable lunches to homeless and at-risk children in West Hawaii,” said a state Hawaii Child Nutrition Programs (HCNP) report. “Over the six weeks of program operation, more than 4,300 meals were served to children that otherwise would have gone hungry.”

Jennifer Dang, an HCNP coordinator under the state Department of Education, said in an interview, “What makes Kona Pacific unique is it is the only school or sponsor (of a feeding program) that will go to where the kids are, rather than asking the kids to come to them.” On Hawaii Island in low-income districts, the national school lunch program is usually extended during the summer, but in 2015, there were no feeding programs available in Kona until Kona Pacific stepped up.

On the average in 2016, the mobile program visited 10 to 12 sites, feeding 312 children per day (10,235 total); and in 2017, there were nine sites, nourishing 226 per day (7,659 total), the DOE report said. The program has served more than 22,000 lunches since its launch.

In an interview, Hecht said: “I’m grateful to my school board and my team for letting me follow my heart and feed hungry kids, and I do it only because I feel I need to. I think the honor goes to our kitchen staff that goes to work at 4 every morning. … I have the luxury of thinking of these ideas and helping start them up, but it’s all those folks who are the real heroes for the children, and this award is for them.”

Hecht said he is carrying on a family tradition of nutrition and public health advocacy, so he was sensitive to filling the needs of the “under-resourced” Kona District.

“Thinking about children going hungry, that’s a bummer. … We have a crisis here in our state,” he said, where kids are coming to school hungry and can’t concentrate on academics or control their behavior.

“I see nutrition as an important part of public health, especially in Hawaii where we have such a prevalence of so-called lifestyle diseases, like coronary artery disease and diabetes — those are all because people eat high-fat, high-sugar diets and don’t exercise. There’s some genetics (causing the diseases) but it’s mostly choices people make, and if we can reach children and teach them ways they can eat healthy and incorporate movement in their daily life and drink lots of water instead of sugary, soda things, we’re setting them on a course for a healthier life,” he said.

Dang said Kona Pacific is reimbursed through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program at a rural rate of $4.48 (during the regular school session, the rate is $3.95 per lunch)