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New nutrition assistance program helps Ohio families with groceries this summer

A grocery store aisle is lined with cereal boxes.
Nathalia Rosa
SUN Bucks will provide eligible families with $120 for groceries while kids are on summer break.

While Ohio students are out of school for the summer, their families can receive help paying for groceries through a new statewide program. Summer EBT, also called SUN Bucks, gives eligible families $120 per child in school, issued onto an Ohio Direction Card.

“We know that there's so many kids that benefit from receiving free and reduced-price meals while they're at school,” said Kam McKenzie, SNAP outreach manager at the Freestore Foodbank. “Just because school is out, (that) does not take that hunger need away."

Approximately 30,000 students in Cincinnati Public Schools are eligible for free lunches during the school year, according to a 2022 Spectrum News 1 article. When school lets out for the summer, those students can continue to receive free meals at libraries and community sites through Ohio’s Summer Food Service Program.

The new SUN Bucks program provides students with more nutritional choice. The $120 can be spent at authorized grocery stores to purchase food items.

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"It can go pretty far getting things that kids can make on their own," McKenzie said. "Whether it's peanut butter and jelly or things like that, when we're talking about school-aged kids, it needs to be quick and accessible, and they'll be able to help with that."

SUN Bucks is the first new permanent federal nutrition assistance program in over 50 years, according to an Ohio Department of Education and Workforce and Ohio Association of Food Banks press release. It is modeled after the Pandemic EBT program.

"We saw that we were able to actually uplift a lot of children out of that poverty, our food lines at our food banks were reducing slightly because people had these benefits," said Audrey Vanzant, director of communications for the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.

The Ohio Department of Education and Workforce will administer the SUN Bucks program. Benefits will be processed mid-June. Many families will receive them automatically. Some will need to apply online.

Who will automatically receive the SUN Bucks benefits?

  • Children whose families received SNAP or Ohio Works First benefits
  • Children receiving Medicaid who meet the free and reduced-price lunch threshold during the 2023-2024 school year
  • Children who applied and were individually approved to receive free or reduced-price school meals through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) during the 2023-2024 school year

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Who will need to apply for the SUN Bucks benefits?

  • Children experiencing homelessness
  • Children who receive free or reduced-price school meals but did not complete a National School Lunch Program (NSLP) application (for example, if the child attends a Community Eligibility Provision school where all students are provided free or reduced-price meals without applying)
  • Children in families earning less than 185% of the federal poverty line based on their monthly income that aren’t currently connected to other public benefits
  • Children in families who cannot receive SNAP benefits due to immigration status (students do not have to be U.S. citizens to apply for and receive SUN Bucks benefits)

How to apply

Families and students can apply for SUN Bucks benefits at sebt.ohio.gov. The Freestore Foodbank provides free application help at the Customer Connection Center located at 112 East Liberty St., and via phone at 513-381-7627.

Isabel joined WVXU in 2024 to cover the environment.