HONOLULU (KHON2) — In school districts across the nation, keiki are being denied the basic right of food because school boards have enacted food debt programs that prevent students from gaining access to life-sustaining and brain-building meals.

According to research, over 1.5 million students in the U.S. have succumbed to food debt because they cannot afford to pay for school lunches with one in six students needing help accessing food.

Get Hawaii’s latest morning news delivered to your inbox, sign up for News 2 You

Food is the great equalizer. Providing fuel for brain power guarantees a person can have a successful and productive day.

Today, Jan. 23, Rep. Matayoshi took a step to protect children from food debt. Matayoshi introduced a House Bill 540 that seeks to provide universal free lunches for public school students in Hawai’i. This bold move will go a long way in leveling out the playing field in education.

“During the pandemic, many families with children experienced hardship,” said Rep. Matayoshi. “We are directly supporting these families financially, providing nutritious food to our keiki to ensure they are ready to learn.”

House Bill 540 states “regardless of a student’s eligibility for participation in the Federal National School Lunch Program, the Hawaiʻi Department of Education shall offer one school meal to any asking student at no expense to the student each school day. Currently, a family of four must earn less than $41,496 annually to be eligible for NSL free lunches.”

This measure will ensure that no student will be denied a meal simply because they cannot afford to pay for it. It is hoped that this bill will eliminate the concept of food debt on the records of keiki.

“During the pandemic, the DOE provided free school lunches to students, so we know they have the capacity and capability. I have been collaborating with the DOE, U.S. Senator Brian Schatz and the United States Department of Agriculture to increase federal subsidies for Hawaiʻi student lunches,” said Rep. Matayoshi.

“It is my hope that the State can make up the difference to ensure school lunches are free to all public-school students,” added Matayoshi.

The program that was begun by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school nutritional waivers helped children access free lunches during the COVID pandemic.

Get news on the go with KHON 2GO, KHON’s morning podcast, every morning at 8

Hawai’i is following the leadership being shown by California and Maine where universal free school lunches have already been enacted.