Thursday, February 13, 2014 at 11:14 AM
The snow is causing headaches for drivers, forcing road crews to work around the clock, and causing many school closings. But as Statehouse correspondent Andy Chow, there’s another serious problem caused by the snow days that may go overlooked.
Many school districts have run out of calamity days, but making up that classroom time isn’t the only issue in some communities. When a school closes for the day, eligible students will not receive their free or reduced meals.
This issue is very troubling to Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, the executive director for the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.
“I have to tell you, my heart sinks when I wake up in the morning and I start to hear the huge number of school closings," Hamler-Fugitt said. "Because I know that that’s another day that too many children in our state -- some 800,000 children -- who rely on a free breakfast or free lunch program in our schools are going to go without that critical food that they need to engender an active, healthy life."
Hamler-Fugitt says the issue has become so pressing that some superintendents have decided to stay open because of the free and reduced meal dilemma.
Susan Rogers is the director of the COAD/RSVP in the Ohio Valley, a volunteer management program that helps further development in Appalachian Ohio. She says the schools in her area have been dramatically impacted when you take into account all the snow and add that to southeast Ohio’s many hills and back roads.
As Rogers explains, families take these meals into account when they head to the grocery store.
“That’s how they budget, so when there is no school, the kids are home," Rogers said. "That’s three extra meals, or two meals and a snack, that they are needing to provide for each of their children every day. So their resources are being exhausted.”
Here are a couple of numbers to give you an idea of just how much of an impact the weather has had in southeast Ohio. The most recent data from the Department of Education says more than 1,300 kids at Vinton County Local Schools rely on these meals. So far that district has had 16 snow days.
Athens City Schools has shut down for a total of 15 days, leaving more than 1,100 students without free or reduced meals. And Jackson City Schools, which has more than 1,400 students on the program, has had 11 snow days.
And this is happening all around the state.
So what can be done about it? Not much, according to Hamler-Fugitt, unless changes are made at the federal level. These meals are purchased and prepared with money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA has a rule stating that these meals are not allowed to be delivered or distributed off of school grounds.
The Ohio Association of Foodbanks has asked the USDA to waive this rule. Gov. John Kasich has also sent a letter to the federal department to support this effort.
Hamler-Fugitt recognizes the other issues that come with snow days and hopes this problem can be included in the policy discussion.
“So when we’ve talked about the calamity days here at the Statehouse and increasing the number, and schools talking about sending those ‘blizzard bags’ home with homework in them -- there’s no food in those bags," Hamler-Fugitt said. "And certainly that’s something that we think that needs to be addressed.”
The USDA declined to comment for this story.
While the federal department has yet to change its rules, local groups are finding other ways to get meals out to kids. Communities have created programs with help from the state and private organizations to prepare and deliver food in the summer, without the help of the USDA.
Hamler-Fugitt believes the rough winter will have a major overall impact to low-income Ohioans who are taking unpaid time off of work to take care of their kids when school’s called off.
“So it has a compounding impact on low-income families," she said. "Not only are the kids missing out on those critical and nutritional school lunch and breakfast programs, but often it means that the family is going to see their income drop. The paycheck is going to be lighter.”
Back in southeast Ohio, Rogers says concerned individuals can help by connecting with their local school districts and food banks. As she explains, there are several ways to get involved, including a program to send kids home with backpacks full of food for weekends.