Students getting their l lunch at a primary school. Photo by Amanda Mills/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With nearly 2 million children in Ohio facing food insecurity, school officials and the leaders of anti-hunger initiatives want to see federal dollars jumpstart expired pandemic programs.
Universal lunch programs were used all over the country during the pandemic as COVID-19 caused school closures and an economic downturn that exacerbated a problem school districts had seen pre-pandemic: school lunch debts.
Andrea Helton, director of nutrition services at Wellington Exempted Village School District in Lorain County, said the expiration of the universal free meal waivers inserted unnecessary bureaucracy into what should have been a problem that was simple to resolve: feed the students.
“The little ones will sometimes complain of hunger, and it takes longer to provide help than it did when meals were free,” Helton told a Monday meeting of the Ohio Children’s Legislative Caucus.
The school district provided lunches 3,622 more times in the 2021-2022 school year (when lunches were free) than they did in the 2018-2019 year. Helton said they also saw less stigma with all students getting free lunch.
Wellington has pre-K through grade 12 student population of 1,060, with more than 38% considered economically disadvantaged. Of those, 29.9% are eligible for free lunch, but getting the students the food they need involves reaching out to parents to make them aware of the program, and using gross income to decide on eligibility.
The school district charges $3 for elementary lunches, $3.10 for middle school lunch and $3.25 for meals in the high school. They also serve a breakfast for $1.85.
Helton said parents have called her upset that they’ve missed the income cut off by a few hundred dollars, arguing that depending on just gross income as the marker for eligibility ignores other costs with which families have to contend.
“We’re seeing a lot more students pack lunches because we’ve transitioned back to paid meals,” Helton said.
Observing the changes in meals from hot school meals to packing, Helton says she sees more prepared foods like Lunchables, and “very few” fresh fruits and vegetables.
Statewide, Ohio had about 450,000 students who participated in free breakfast programs, and 730,000 in the lunch program in the last school year, according to the Food Research and Action Center.
“When all students had access to free meals, more students participated than they did pre-pandemic,” said Alexis Bylander, senior child nutrition policy analyst for FRAC.
To salvage the increases in food security that school districts saw with universal free lunch and waivers that allowed families to pick up meals from schools and community sites, program supporters want to see federal American Rescue Plan dollars pushed toward Ohio’s school lunch programs, as they hope for further supplements from the state.
“We’d like to see this sustained, but we think the one-time need or this school year is very much present,” Katherine Ungar, senior policy associate for the Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio, and member of the Hunger-Free Schools Ohio Coalition.
CDF-Ohio partnered with Baldwin-Wallace University to survey parents on what they felt students needed for a “whole-child” education. In the survey, 46% of parents said their child ate a free lunch at school five days a week, and 87% of parents said those meals should be provided for free.
The Hunger-Free Schools Ohio Coalition sent a letter to Gov. Mike DeWine in July asking him to “take action to continue to provide healthy school meals for all Ohio children and make all of our schools hunger-free.”
In asking the DeWine administration and the Ohio legislature to “make sure our children avoid the child hunger cliff,” the coalition asked for ARPA or other funding sources to be used to “supplement the cost of providing school meals that are not covered by the federal government, so schools are fully reimbursed at the ‘free rate’ for all meals they service.”
The coalition also wants to see the state “maximize federal funding for school meals” by requiring school districting to sign up for the community eligibility provision, an option provided by the federal government to allow “high-poverty schools to offer meals at no cost for all.”
State Sen. Vernon Sykes led the Children’s Caucus meeting on Monday, and was asked for a status update on moving the ARPA funding needed to continue the school lunch program. Sykes said since the legislature had yet to meet since going on summer break, legislative leaders (House Speaker Bob Cupp and Senate President Matt Huffman) have not updated him on any decisions regarding the money.
The money would have to go through the state Controlling Board before being distributed.
A spokesperson for Cupp did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
The Ohio State Board of Education looked at two resolutions in their September meeting, one that recommended that the General Assembly use ARPA funding to provide free breakfast and lunch to students in Ohio. But board members acknowledged the resolution doesn’t change laws, merely acts in support of a measure.
But the other resolution stood in opposition to federal anti-discrimination language, which would protect sexual orientation and identity. The resolution is merely an objection to U.S. Department of Agriculture language changes, but if the language is removed, schools who use lunch programs, for example, would not have anti-discrimination policies protecting sexual orientation or gender identity.
The board decided to shelve the resolutions until the October meeting rather than taking a vote.
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