Schools across the country have tried different measures to address the issue of unpaid student meal debt. Some have denied students the ability to graduate until their meal debt was paid, others require students to do chores to earn their meals, while others grant all students access to school meals regardless of their ability to pay. Whatever strategy the school chooses to employ, it must fit within the parameters of their state’s laws.
A report by ChildTrends.org shows that Hawaii is one of three states with laws that allow schools to deny students access to school lunches due to unpaid meal debt. Only Pennsylvania and New Jersey were categorized similarly.
Hawaii’s current law only allows schools to deny access in certain, specific circumstances: 1) after the first 21 days of school, and 2) seven days after a second attempt at notifying parents of the unpaid meal debt. Outside of those circumstances, schools are legally permitted to deny students from getting school lunches.
The report grouped each state into six categories: 21 states have made no legislative efforts to address unpaid meal debt; 8 are pending legislation to address unpaid meal debt; 11 have enacted legislation to address unpaid meal debt in a supportive way; 6 have introduced legislation to address unpaid meal debt in their past legislative sessions; 3 enacted legislation that permits restricting access to meals for unpaid meal debt in some cases; and 1 enacted legislation to explore the issue of unpaid meal debt.
The total enrollment in Hawaii public schools is currently 179,535 students. As of today 74,098 of those students receive free school lunches, and 14,375 receive reduced school lunches, equating to 49.3% of all Hawaii public school students who receive either free or reduced school lunches.