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Ohio anti-hunger coalition asks state to fund universal free school meals

A cafeteria cook at Stebbins High School in Riverside, a suburb of Dayton.
Alejandro Figueroa
A cafeteria cook at Stebbins High School in Riverside, a suburb of Dayton.

Hunger-Free Schools Ohio Coalition is lobbying state legislators to cover the cost of school meals for all public school students.

That’s because last summer, a federal pandemic-era waiver that provided universal free school meals for all students expired.

The waiver was set by the federal government early in 2020 to help relieve some of the financial burdens on parents.

Although last fall, schools went back to free or reduced lunch for students who are income-eligible. But for some who don’t qualify, they still struggle to cover the full cost of lunch which can range from $1.25 to more than $3 per day, and their lunch debt is rising.

Katherine Ungar, a policy associate at the Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio, said that’s a real problem.

“As many as one in four children in certain counties live in a household that faces hunger,” Ungar said. “And here's the really critical point, more than one in three of those kids does not qualify for free or reduced price meals.”

Some students might not qualify because their parents might make slightly more than the income threshold to be eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Even if they qualify though, there’s a stigma around participating in the program, according to Scott DiMauro, the president of the Ohio Education Association.

“The stigma felt by students, that the program is only sort of for low income students, causes many children not to participate.” DiMauro said.

Big urban districts with high levels of poverty like Dayton Public Schools easily qualify for a program called the Community Eligibility Provision. Through that program, schools with more than 40% low-income students get free lunch for all of their kids.

But many working class suburban or rural communities often don’t meet the eligibility threshold.

Megan Thompson, a parent at Wellington Exempted School District in Lorain County, said it was much easier when her kids got lunch for free.

“Now it just feels like one more thing that we have to think about,” Thompson said. “It's really hard to think about. It's kind of cruel, really.”

Back in September, the state school board asked the legislature to earmark American Rescue Plan Act money for free school meals for the remainder of the school year. Although no proposals were introduced during last year's General Assembly.

Now, the coalition is asking the state legislature to consider funding free school meals in Ohio’s 2024-2025 budget. DiMauro said the state has the money for it.

“This isn't a partisan issue. Other states, including many Republican led states in this country, are working toward or have just passed legislation to accomplish this. Ohio can do it too,” DiMauro said. “When we have stronger, smarter, healthier kids, we have a stronger, smarter, healthier, more economically competitive state.”

The group estimates funding free school meals in Ohio could cost the state upwards of $200 million.

Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Support for WYSO's reporting on food and food insecurity in the Miami Valley comes from the CareSource Foundation.

Alejandro Figueroa covers food insecurity and the business of food for WYSO through Report for America — a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Alejandro particularly covers the lack of access to healthy and affordable food in Southwest Ohio communities, and what local government and nonprofits are doing to address it. He also covers rural and urban farming

Email: afigueroa@wyso.org
Phone: 937-917-5943