In the News

Nonprofits including YMCA offer free lunches to keiki on Oahu

Honolulu Star-Advertiser·

Nonprofit groups such as the YMCA are offering free grab-and-go lunches to children through age 18 at various sites on Oahu to supplement those being offered at many public schools by the Department of Education.

Parents and Children Together will sponsor the takeout lunches for children on weekdays through April 30 at Kuhio Park Terrace Community Resource Center at 1485 Linapuni Street. The meals are available 12 p.m.-1 p.m. on weekdays, except for holidays.

Palama Settlement is also offering free lunches to keiki from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on weekdays, from March 30 through April 3 at its facility at 810 North Vineyard Blvd.

The YMCA of Honolulu has extended its distribution of free healthy meals to children in need at five sites on weekdays through April 3, in partnership with Kapiolani Community College, Hawaii Appleseed Center and other nonprofits, businesses and donors. It hopes to get support to keep the meals going.

“It’s important to us to ensure that no one in our community goes hungry during these uncertain times,” said Diane Tabangay, executive director of youth development for the YMCA of Honolulu. “While we are working with community partners, we are still in need of monetary donations, as we hope we can extend our meal distribution through the entire month of April.”

The free grab-and-go meals are being offered to complement those being offered at some public schools, since they are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

YMCA meals are available for pick up from 11:30 a.m. to 12:3o p.m. outside the following facilities:

>>Puohala Elementary School, 45-233 Kulauli Street, Kaneohe

>>Kalihi Valley Instructional Bike Exchange, 1638 Kamehameha IV Road

>>Palolo Valley Homes, 2170 Ahe Street

>>Nuuanu YMCA, 1441 Pali Highway

Starting Monday:

>>Melemanu Recreation Center, 98-2031 Waikalani Place, Mililani

To donate to the YMCA effort, email kvanduyne@ymcahonolulu.org or give online at https://www.ymcahonolulu.org/donate.

Community Groups Offer Free Lunch To Kids

Honolulu Civil Beat·

Several nonprofits and child advocacy organizations have banded together to offer free meals to kids 18 and under during this time of unplanned school closures because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Sites offering lunch from March 23 to March 27 include Kalihi Valley International Bike Program, Kipapa Elementary School, Nuuanu YMCA, Palolo Valley Homes and Puohala Elementary.

Those sites will serve grab and go lunches from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., including on Thursday, which is Prince Kuhio Day, a state holiday.

Additionally, all this week — with the exception of Thursday — Kuhio Park Terrace Resource Center will offer free grab and go lunch to kids from noon to 1 p.m.

Meals being distributed to kids 18 and under this week and next will be for pick-up only in grab and go containers.

Starting next Monday to April 30, Palama Settlement will also offer meals to kids from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Here is a map showing where these new meal sites are located.

The partnership includes YMCA Honolulu, Parents and Children Together, Palama Settlement, Aloha Harvest, Kapiolani Community College, Hawaii Appleseed Center and Hawaii Child Nutrition Programs.

“On a typical school day, about 61,000 economically disadvantaged Hawaii students benefit from free or reduced-price school meals,” a statement from Hawaii Appleseed said. “For many, these are the only nutritious meals that they eat regularly.”

Dates of service at the above community sites may be extended “depending upon DOE announcement of further school closures and funding availability.”

The Hawaii Department of Education began offering grab-and-go breakfast and lunch meal service this week at 38 school sites across the islands, including Honolulu, Maui, Kauai and Big Island. Public schools are closed until at least April 7 to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. UPDATE: The DOE announced Tuesday afternoon schools will now be closed through April 30.

The DOE distributed over 3,600 meals statewide on Monday, it said in a tweet.

Some are worried the DOE-distributed free breakfasts and meals aren’t enough. On Tuesday morning, House Rep. Amy Perruso posted on her Facebook page that Leilehua High in Wahiawa “looked like it was going to run out of food for the second day in a row.”

“We know we have kids in Lakeview Circle and Whitmore who will not be able to walk in rain for school meal,” she wrote. “We need to figure out how to serve the most vulnerable.”

Every keiki needs a (healthy) breakfast

Honolulu Star-Advertiser·

Eating breakfast is important to helping our keiki grow up strong, healthy and academically successful. While there are many benefits to eating breakfast, Hawaii has dropped to 51st in the nation in school breakfast participation, according to a recent annual report by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).

Studies have shown that keiki who eat breakfast have better attendance. They attend an average of 1.5 more days of school per year. Students do better in math. In fact, they average 17.5% higher in math test scores and are 20% more likely to graduate from high school.

The statistics are compelling, but too many of Hawaii’s children are not taking advantage of breakfast in our school cafeterias. In fact, according to the FRAC report, fewer than 40% of children in Hawaii ate school breakfast for every 100 that received a free or reduced-price school lunch last year. This is far below the national average of 57.5 per 100, making Hawaii 51st in the nation for school breakfast participation among all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

We can change this trend together to give our students that important boost to help start their school days. A culture shift is needed by parents to make school breakfast a priority. This may require adjusting commute schedules or earlier bedtimes, but the academic benefits to students are immense and long-lasting.

If we increase our participation to 70%, not only will more children be eating, but we will be able to capture $5.8 million more in federal dollars as school meals are reimbursed by the federal government.

All Hawaii Department of Education (HIDOE) schools serve traditional breakfast before school starts, but there are so many variables that prevent students from taking advantage of this important meal. HIDOE has been testing innovative ways to address these challenges through the Jump Start Breakfast program.

The Jump Start Breakfast program encourages schools to look at different ways of serving breakfast, such as Grab and Go to the classroom, extending the breakfast time, or eating breakfast in the classroom.

Honowai Elementary School is now piloting “breakfast in the classroom” in kindergarten and first grade. Breakfast is delivered to the classroom, so students eat breakfast to start their school day. So far, the numbers are promising, showing a 136% increase in breakfast participation for the entire school.

Several Leeward schools are now offering a Grab and Go breakfast, where students pick up breakfast in the cafeteria and can eat it in or outside of the cafeteria. Participation rates have gone up in the first few weeks of this program.

Additionally, HIDOE’s School Food Service Branch is also looking at ways to add more local products into the school breakfast menu, such as through its kalo bowl — a yogurt parfait with taro, pineapple and granola. And ulu (breadfruit) pancakes are now in the development process.

It is up to all of us to ensure that our keiki have the nutrition they need to be academically successful and healthy. We need to all work together in our communities to make this happen.

New federal rules could hurt immigrants and state economy

Honolulu Star-Advertiser·

A federal rule that puts new limits on immigrants considered likely to become overly dependent on government benefit programs could end up costing Hawaii’s economy as much as $127 million, according to a recent analysis.

A divided Supreme Court recently allowed the Trump administration to enforce its controversial “public charge” rule that allows federal officials to deny entry into the U.S. to anyone who might need government aid.

The controversial rule was set to become law in October but was challenged in court by immigrant rights groups and a number of states, including Hawaii.

In the past the federal government considered only cash benefits, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, to determine who was likely to become a public charge.

However, last month’s 5-4 vote by the court’s conservative majority means anyone using or likely to use Medicaid, food stamps and other safety net programs would face greater scrutiny from immigration officials.

The Trump administration has defended the rule as a way to ensure immigrants remain financially self-sufficient, but critics, such as U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, say it’s really aimed at closing the door on poor immigrants.

“This rule was intended to confuse and scare immigrant families, and it’s working,” Hirono said on social media after the ruling. “The people who will suffer the most are the poor and vulnerable among us — particularly children.”

Hirono has introduced legislation to prohibit the Trump administration from using federal funding to implement the rule.

Ever since the proposal was first leaked to the press in 2017, critics predicted it would have a chilling effect on legal immigrant families who are eligible for public assistance, causing them to disenroll from, or not apply for, benefits out of fear it would jeopardize their family’s immigration status.

Now a new analysis from Hawai‘i Appleseed Center for Law &Economic Justice has found a 38% reduction since 2016 in the number of these children receiving Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as food stamps.

“It’s not proof, but these numbers seem to indicate there was a sharp drop-off for SNAP by noncitizens,” said Nicole Woo, senior policy analyst for Hawai‘i Appleseed.

In a report, the Kaiser Family Foundation said up to 4.7 million people could withdraw from Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program if the rule went into effect, putting their health at risk.

The New York-based Fiscal Policy Institute analyzed the rule’s affect on the country as a whole and has estimated that 110,000 people in Hawaii will experience a “chilling” effect. Among that population: 40,000 Hawaii minors, of whom 30,000 are U.S. citizens by birth.

In addition, the institute said states are at risk of losing tens of millions in federal dollars. In considering only health and nutrition supports — the largest benefits targeted by the rule — the organization projected a 25% drop in enrollment in Hawaii and a resulting $66 million loss of federal funds.

Woo said not only will there be fewer federal dollars coming to Hawaii, but there will be fewer program participants spending at grocery stores and other food retailers.

“Hospitals, doctors and nurses will lose income due to a reduction in Medicaid usage. Many other businesses will lose revenue as immigrant families that struggle to make up for the lost nutrition and health care benefits shift spending priorities,” Woo said.

The Fiscal Policy Institute estimated a loss to Hawaii’s gross domestic product by as much as $127 million, with losses of 865 jobs and $10 million in state tax revenue.

The court complaint that state Attorney General Clare Connors signed says the rule would boost homelessness and hunger and result in health coverage losses.

“This federal rule increases the challenges already faced by vulnerable members of our community,” Connors said in a statement. “The government should not intimidate residents who are legally present and who are in short term need of assistance.”

Aim higher for Hawaii’s minimum wage

Honolulu Star-Advertiser·

Hawaii’s minimum wage places it somewhere near the middle of the pack among states, which is not an optimal position for a place where it is so expensive to live.

This concerns lawmakers, too, and they seem willing to boost the hourly rate from the current $10.10 to $13 by 2024. There seems to be some employer support for the idea — with positive testimony coming from key businesses and associations.

That is somewhat encouraging. The last series of stepped increases in the Hawaii minimum wage topped out two years ago. Meanwhile, other high-cost states, such as California (already up to $13), New York ($11.80) and Washington ($13.50), continued moving up. It’s good to see some upward mobility here as well.

But advocates have concluded that landing in four years on a $13 hourly rate still falls well short of Hawaii’s need, and they make a persuasive argument for raising the minimum further. The legislation at issue, House Bill 2541, is set to cross over this week to the Senate for continued hearings.

Just how much room there is for a further increase may hinge on giving the employers, especially smaller businesses, some flexibility to meet the minimum requirement, perhaps with a mix of pay and health benefits.

Such a structure should discourage employers from trying to save money by cutting back hours and cutting out health insurance, an outcome that would serve no worker.

HB 2541 is part of the broad-based initiatives being pushed by Democratic leadership to bolster the economic security of Hawaii’s poor and working people, many of whom continue to struggle to cover basic expenses.

The package also includes bills aimed at lowering the cost of early- learning and childcare programs over time and supports affordable housing, in a push to address two of the biggest financial burdens for the average household. These are longer-term campaigns, with results to come with time.

For the near term, the mission to help families make ends meet is being addressed by increasing pay packets and reducing the bite that taxes take out of them.

In addition to the pay hike, HB 2541 includes tax relief. It would make the state’s earned income tax credit (EITC) refundable. For individual taxpayers earning income less than $30,000 a year, it would increase the refundable credit for food and excise taxes to $150 multiplied by the number of qualified exemptions the taxpayer claims.

The EITC and the food/tax credit enhancements do help on the margins to give lower-income taxpayers some help. But, as advocates argue, they do not come close to the financial boost that a more substantial minimum wage would bring.

The entire rationale of the minimum wage merits a close look. Critics maintain that enforced minimum pay rates can result in job losses, as labor costs represent the lion’s share of a business’ budget, meaning that companies will cut their staff rosters and reduce workers’ hours to control expenses.

Increased costs are passed on to consumers through rising prices, curbing growth. Better than minimum-wage hikes are tax credits such as the EITC.

However, these arguments run counter to what’s already evident. Job losses have not been linked to past raises. The EITC is here but has not sufficiently offset the poverty levels witnessed in the spread of homelessness and social ills. Multiple studies have documented that nearly half the population barely gets by.

Hawai‘i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, the nonprofit advocacy group, asserts that $17 comes closer to what single people need to “meet their basic needs,” citing data from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

That is the minimum that Appleseed wants to see in place by 2025, adding $8,000 in annual income for full-time work — much more than most low-wage taxpayers here would receive in tax credits.

Of course, that is a steep climb especially for smaller businesses, already worried about the current coronavirus outbreak impacts and other economic upheavals.

Even keeping that in mind, there should be a way to nudge the minimum wage upwards, beyond $13 per hour. That should be the aim of ongoing negotiations between the House and Senate.

For example, one proposal last session would give a break to employers who do provide health benefits under the state’s Prepaid Health Care Act, a benefit required for all employees working at least 20 hours weekly. The pay rates for them could be lower than the top-tier minimum wage required of those that hire only part-time workers.

This structure could be reconsidered to give leeway to employers providing the crucial benefit, rather than driving them to cut employees and hours.

Legislative leaders and Gov. David Ige deserve support for taking this multipronged approach to an economic rescue plan. As the second half of the session begins, decisionmakers have to keep eyes on that prize, an assist that many Hawaii families have long needed, just to get by.

Minimum wage hike bill advances, but critics say it’s still not enough

Hawaii News Now·

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) – A bill to hike Hawaii’s minimum wage is moving to the full house, but critics say it still falls short of what a person needs to live in the 50th state.

Even the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism says so, according to those critics.

“According to DBEDT, somebody in 2020 who’s single with no children needs over 17 dollars an hour to be self-sufficient. So our own state is telling us it’s 17 dollars or more in 2020,” said Nicole Woo, senior policy analyst with the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.

The bill approved by the house Finance and Labor committees would raise the wage from the current $10.10 an hour to $11 in 2021, $12 in 2022, $12.50 in 2023, and $13 dollars in 2024.

“If it takes 17 dollars an hour just to survive and everyone agrees that it does, then why aren’t we requiring employers to pay it?” asked the Rev. David Gerlach. He’s the rector at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Palama, which is surrounded by lower income residents.

“I have a neighborhood where I have working dads, full time, raising two kids, living in ten foot by ten foot apartments, and they’re paying 750 dollars a month for that, and they’re still not getting by full-time,” said Gerlach.

But lawmakers say pushing the minimum wage too high could have a negative impact on businesses — and workers.

“We’re worried that employers may react by then counter-productively reducing an employee’s hours, or potentially reducing their benefits,” said state Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, who chairs the House Labor and Public Employment Committee.

Johanson also stressed that some of those benefits are available only to workers in Hawaii.

“In no other sate in the union are employers in the private sector mandated to fully cover a worker’s health care insurance premium, and that’s a great benefit. It’s the financial underpinning of our system,” he said.

Woo countered that the last big minimum wage hikes in Hawaii between 2015 and 2018 didn’t have a negative impact on local business.

“It went from $7.25 to $10.10, and during that time our unemployment rate dropped to record lows, the lowest in the country. And we also added a lot of jobs in the restaurant sectors.– for example — which is one of the sectors that’s really affected by the minimum wage,” said Woo.

The measure has the support of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, which has opposed several previous minimum wage hike proposals. That’s because the bill also includes tax relief measures, including making the state earned income tax refundable and permanent, and increasing the refundable food/excise tax credit.

“It would be up to 70-plus million dollars of new additional tax relief for working class individuals and working class families,” said Johanson. “So this is not just the minimum wage worker. This is a lot of middle class families that are struggling.”

Gerlach says, however, that increasing the minimum wage could decrease costs elsewhere.

“If you’re running something called a business, and you can’t afford to pay your workers a liveable wage, you don’t have a business, you have a hobby,” he said. “And taxpayers shouldn’t be supporting those hobbies through welfare and food stamps and things of that nature,”

“”I can understand that people would like it to be higher, but 13 dollars is still an increase over what it is now,” said Johanson.

The measure now heads to the full house for consideration.

Hawai‘i Home to Lowest School Breakfast Participation in US

Big Island Now·

Hawai‘i now holds the dubious honor of having the lowest school breakfast participation in the country, according to a release from the Hawai‘i Appleseed Center For Law & Economic Justice.

According to the newest national School Breakfast Scorecard, released Thursday by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), 25,476 low-income children in Hawai‘i participated in the National School Breakfast Program on an average school day in 2018-2019. That represents a decrease of 2.7%, or 1,047 students, from the previous year.

FRAC’s report finds that fewer than 40 low-income children in Hawai‘i ate school breakfast for every 100 that received free or reduced-price school lunch during the 2018–2019 school year. This is far below the national average of 57.5 per 100.

The top two states, West Virginia and Vermont, had 83 and 70, respectively, out of 100 of their low-income lunch students also getting school breakfast. If Hawai‘i can increase its rate to 70%, nearly 20,000 additional low-income keiki would receive the benefits of school breakfast, and the state would receive an additional $5.8 million per year in federal funds, the release said.

Hawaiʻi’s First Lady Dawn Amano-Ige, a former public-school teacher and vice principal, is encouraging students to start their day with breakfast at school.

“We know it’s hard to concentrate when you’re hungry, and when students eat breakfast, they’re ready to learn and more likely to succeed,” she said.

The School Breakfast Scorecard also describes best practices to boost school breakfast participation. The first is utilizing the Community Eligibility Program (CEP), which allows high-poverty schools to offer school meals free of charge to all students.

The Hawaiʻi Department of Education has been proactive and effective in recent years at expanding the number of CEP schools across the state, the release said. Hawaiʻi went from seven CEP schools in the 2015-16 school year, to 30 schools in 2016-17, and on to 52 schools in 2017-18.

Is An $868,000 Home Affordable? Hawaii Senators Say No

Honolulu Civil Beat·

Lawmakers in the Hawaii Senate Housing Committee on Tuesday rejected a core element of a major housing proposal backed by Gov. David Ige and House and Senate leadership that aims to provide affordable housing near the rail line.

The problem is the so-called affordable housing wouldn’t actually be affordable, according to Sen. Stanley Chang, who chairs the committee.

Under Senate Bill 3104, the state would issue 99-year leases for projects that make 50% of units available to households making 140% of the area median income and invest $275 million in housing infrastructure. A family of four making 140% of AMI could afford a home that costs $867,900. The other half of the units would be market rate.

“I will never accept a bill that has 140% of AMI when we’re talking about free state land and free taxpayer-funded infrastructure,” Chang said. “That is a pure giveaway to developers, and it’s completely irresponsible.”

Senate Housing Committee Chair Stanley Chang made major changes to a bill championed by House and Senate leaders and Gov. Ige.

Chang’s committee advanced an amended version of the bill that would require 100% of units to be available to those making 80% of AMI and below.

For families of four making 80% of AMI, an affordable home would be $495,900, according to data from the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation. For an individual, that would be $347,400.

The original version of the bill, which is still under consideration in the House as HB2542, received strong support from U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, the business community and the construction industry.

But it also generated passionate pushback from affordable housing advocates and other groups, including the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

“The units must be affordable for the 75% of Oahu’s households needing homes who earn less than $75,000 a year,” said Evelyn Aczon Hao, president of the nonprofit Faith Action for Community Equity, in a statement last month.

“A family earning $75,000 a year can afford a home priced at about $400,000.”

In testimony, Hawaiian Community Assets said the bill was pitched to the public as a solution for residents living paycheck to paycheck but that it fails to address that population’s housing needs.

“According to the most recent Hawaii Housing Planning Study, 52% of the housing units we will need by 2025 must be for low-income households earning up to 80% of the HUD area median income (AMI),” the nonprofit wrote in its testimony.

The data shows a surplus of units available for those whose income is 140% of the AMI, while there is a shortfall of thousands of units at 80% AMI and below. The need is especially great for those making 30% of AMI and below, the data shows.

“We should not be designating homes as ‘affordable’ that are built for people earning six-figure incomes,” the IMUAlliance, an anti-sex trafficking group, testified.

In remarks on Tuesday, Chang said it’s in everyone’s interest to address these community concerns now.

“Without winning the hearts and minds of people, development projects can cross their T’s and dot all their I’s and win every lawsuit, but can be held up by the people of Hawaii who sincerely love the community as it stands today and will physically block development with their own bodies,” he said.

Senators Laura Thielen, Dru Mamo Kanuha and Sharon Moriwaki voted in support of the amendments.

“It addresses the concerns in a meaningful way but still allows us to move forward,” Thielen said.

Gavin Thornton, executive director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said Chang’s amendment is a major improvement, but it could benefit from further discussion to ensure the income restriction isn’t too rigid.

“It might also be helpful to have more flexibility that would allow you to have a few units that target higher-income households in exchange for securing deeper affordability that provides housing for lower-income households,” he said.

Chang said the AMI level would be used to price the units, not restrict buyers, so the communities would be “mixed income.”

The bill faces another vote in the Senate Water and Land Committee, chaired by Sen. Kai Kahele, on Wednesday at 1:17 p.m. in conference room 229.

House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke and Rep. Tom Brower, who chairs the House Committee on Housing, were not immediately available to comment on Chang’s amendments.

Let’s not roll back on Hawaii schools’ healthy lunch strides

Honolulu Star-Advertiser·

School lunch sometimes gets a bad rap, but as a nation, we’ve come a long way since the “ketchup as a vegetable” controversy of the 1980s. For many of Hawaii’s children, school is the only place where they have access to healthy, well-rounded, nutritious meals. In fact, research shows that, in most cases, school lunch is healthier than a home-packed lunch.

Two weeks ago, the Trump administration undermined this access by again proposing roll-backs to school nutrition standards. The current standards — put in place as part of Michelle Obama’s efforts to reform school food — require that children are served at least five different varieties of vegetables each week: dark leafy greens, red/orange vegetables, “starchy” (includes taro and poi) and “other” (‘ulu/breadfruit falls in this category).

The proposed rule would keep these categories — but lower the amount of red/orange and “other” vegetables required, paving the way for districts to opt for white potatoes in place of more nutrient-dense veggie options.

The rule also reduces the fruit requirement for breakfast served outside the cafeteria from one cup to a half cup. This would apply to any schools working to implement a grab-and-go or breakfast-in-the-classroom model, which is one of the key initiatives being championed by Hawaii’s first lady, Dawn Amano-Ige.

These changes aren’t the first assault on healthier school meals by this administration. In 2018, it removed the 50% whole grain requirement, allowed low-fat chocolate milk (only non-fat chocolate milk was allowed previously), and softened the sodium restrictions.

The good news here in Hawaii is that our Department of Education (HIDOE) is one of those “program operators” who aren’t backing down. HIDOE’s School Food Services Branch (which oversees meals for all 256 public schools in the state) is committed to maintaining the higher standards set forth in the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act for whole grain, red/orange and other vegetables, and flavored milk.

In fact, HIDOE’s food branch has been ahead of the curve with the whole grain requirement, switching from hapa rice (half white, half brown) to 100% brown rice in 2016. Early anecdotes of Hawaii students dumping their brown rice have been replaced with stories about kids learning to love brown rice and requesting it at home.

Still, under the federal administration’s proposed new rule, other schools outside of the HIDOE school food system (such as public charter schools) would be free to abandon the healthier standards.

The reason for the rollbacks, the administration says, is because kids don’t like the food now that it is healthy, and much of it is being thrown away.

The problem with this argument is this: What parent doesn’t understand the perpetual struggle of getting their children to eat their vegetables? Sure, kids might eat more if they are presented with more white bread, white rice and white potatoes. But with adolescent obesity rates in Hawaii remaining steady at around 14% for more than 15 years, there must be a better solution.

To combat food waste, rather than just give kids the junk food they want, we need to couple these healthier standards with hands-on food, agriculture and nutrition education. This includes garden-based learning, cooking demonstrations and understanding how to read ingredient labels.

Hawaii’s farm-to-school movement has been proactively training a workforce of nutrition and garden educators from preschool through higher education (P-20), bringing joy and real life learning to Hawaii’s keiki.

We need to support these efforts in any way we can. One such opportunity is through House Bill 2215, a measure that would continue and expand the work of the P-20 Agriculture Education Working Group toward regenerating Hawaii’s community food systems.

Healthy school meals, school gardens and hands-on education are a trio of interventions that together form a critical component of our children’s health and safety net programs. They reduce food insecurity and have been associated with improved health and academic outcomes.

We need to stand up to the Trump administration’s misguided attempts to weaken nutrition standards. The proposed rule is currently open for comment until March 23, and the administration must read every comment that it gets. Please add your comment to protect children’s health today!

Working families need more relief

Honolulu Star-Advertiser·

Government confronts a difficult balancing act when it tries to help working families make ends meet. The statistics about how many of Hawaii’s people struggle to do so look worse with each passing year, so plainly the safety net needs reinforcement. The current minimum hourly rate, $10.10, does not go far enough.

At the same time, their employers also struggle. Many of the smallest businesses in particular can’t afford to shoulder the entire burden of covering the mounting costs of living.

Finding the right formula for that will be the primary mission of the 2020 legislative session, as raising the minimum has been a plank of the majority Democratic Party platform, and a stated priority of leadership this session in particular. So it’s critical that negotiation happen in the coming weeks to resolve the dispute already arising over the issue.

Lawmakers will start to hear some of the complaints about their initial approach in a hearing today on House Bill 2541.

At the heart of this critique is the observation by some social-service advocates that the bill’s promised tax benefits don’t adequately compensate for the lower bump in minimum wage — to $13 hourly by 2024 — lawmakers now propose.

Instead, advocates favor phasing in a hourly minimum wage in the $15-$17 range, a proposal that, while garnering considerable support, ultimately stalled in a conference committee last session.

Along the way, last year’s measure, HB 1191, shifted several times. The bill proposed various formulas such as a $15 minimum unless employees receive health insurance, in which case the minimum drops to $12.50; and a $15 minimum, with $17 paid to public workers. The federal minimum wage is $7.25, but 90% of all minimum-wage earners get higher pay than that.

Clearly, the $13 proposed top rate in the current bill, HB 2541, represents the opening bid, with various groups countering at $17.

What bill sponsors hope to show is that the entire package of initiatives seeking to help those families in marginal financial shape — including the minimum-wage increase but also some tax reforms and assistance on affordable housing and child care — will combine to do more than a basic wage hike.

Among the groups poised to testify today, Hawai‘i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, gave enthusiastic support for some proposed tax changes.

One was making the earned income tax credit refundable, meaning that qualifying taxpayers receive the full amount of the credit, regardless of their actual tax liability. Also, the sunset for the credit has been eliminated so that it will be an enduring benefit.

In addition, the credit for the excise tax paid on food was already refundable but the bill would increase the maximum to $150 per exemption.

The problem is that it would zero out once income reaches $30,000 annually, according to the Appleseed testimony, which would cut many people in need out of that benefit. The organization rightly gave preference to existing law, which instead phases out the credit gradually as earnings increase.

There is variability across different household types: individuals, single parents, married couples with children. But in general the cash value of the credits is far below what a more generous minimum wage would yield — hundreds of dollars as opposed to thousands.

The Legislature is correctly trying to thread a needle by raising the minimum wage to at least narrow the gap from the income side, while reducing what drains away in taxation at the other end. Compromise here will be essential.

The hope that once a middle path is settled, families will be able to stand on firmer financial ground.