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Ohio Coalition calls on state lawmakers to make school meals free for all

A student puts food on a cafeteria tray at Parma Senior High School on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
A student puts food on a cafeteria tray at Parma Senior High School on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.

A coalition of Ohio organizations called on the Ohio Legislature Monday to make school meals free for all students.

Members of the Hunger-Free Schools Ohio coalition - which includes the Ohio Education Association, a statewide teachers union - gathered for a press conference Monday to raise concern about students going hungry at school.

Katherine Unger, with the Children’s Defense Fund of Ohio, said the number of kids facing hunger at school is "unacceptably high."

"We know that about one in six children across the state, but as many as one in four children in certain counties, lives in a household that faces hunger, which is around 500,000 children in Ohio," she said. "And here's the really critical point. More than one in three of those kids that faces hunger does not qualify for free or reduced price meals. School meals are just as important to students academic success as textbooks. They are linked to better educational outcomes, including increased test scores, improved academic attendance and increased graduation rates."

Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, noted school lunch debt - which happens when students and families can't pay for their school lunches - is again accruing at high rates after the ending of pandemic-era waivers that provided free school lunch to all students. Meanwhile, asIdeastream Public Media and WYSO have previously reported, schools are serving fewer meals to students. DiMauro noted that at Lancaster Schools and Westerville, in Franklin County, lunch debt totals are hitting almost $40,000 for the school year so far.

"The Westerville situation might be surprising to a lot of people because people think of Westerville as a relatively affluent suburb," he said. "But close to 30% of students in their high school qualify for free or reduced price meals."

Megan Thompson, a parent in the Wellington Exempted School District in Lorain County, said paying for meals each day is tough on her family.

“Having meals provided for my child when universal meal programs were in place in Ohio made a huge difference in our lives. Now, every dollar we’re spending on meals is a dollar we can't spend on the other things we need,” Thompson said.

DiMauro said Ohio needs to step its game up to help fund free school lunches for all.

"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," he said. Ohio can do it, too. When we have stronger, smarter, healthier kids, we have a stronger, smarter, healthier, more economically competitive state."

State Rep. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, who is chair of the Ohio House Finance Committee, spoke up during the press conference. He said that the state legislature has been prioritizing education in recent years, and that increasing access to school meals should be part of that.

"I think you're going to see a will of legislators that want to do these sorts of things, (who) care about children and our youth and realize that, you know, as we won a lot of opportunities for our children, if kids are coming to school hungry, you know, that opportunity goes away," he said. "So we've got to get our priorities straight. We do have a lot of federal funding that's sitting available right now."

Currently some school districts, like Cleveland, qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision, which provides free school lunches for all students and enough federal subsidies to help the school districts pay for that expense. But nearly three quarters of all public schools across the state don’t participate in the CEP program; advocates say unless schools have a critical mass of students living in poverty, they don't get reimbursed by the federal government at a high enough rate to make it financially feasible.

Unger said it would cost roughly $200 million per year to fund free school lunches for all students, about a half-percent of the state's overall general fund budget. She noted that recently under a new state-federal partnership, students' families who receive Medicaid can automatically qualify for the national free- and reduced-price lunch program, which will increase the amount of students eligible, and could more easily qualify districts for federal subsidies. That means that the overall price tag for Ohio could be cheaper.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.