Feed Ohio school children. Please. At the very least, feed the children.

April 6, 2023 4:30 am

File photo by WEWS.

A strain of anti-public education ideology has been running rampant among a number of lawmakers in the Ohio Statehouse for many years now.

The consequences can been seen across Ohio as districts have been robbed of previous state funding, such as the many millions lost with the phase-out of Tangible Personal Properties reimbursements.

As Ohio school districts have lost funding resources, they’ve faced millions of dollars in budget cuts, forcing them to go to local residents with historically high numbers of new levy requests that only sometimes get passed, or to cut their staff and programs to balance their budgets.

Now, with Ohio in the process of developing another two-year budget due by the end of June, fully and fairly funding Ohio public schools is once again in direct competition with the designs of lawmakers who want to expand private school vouchers to every Ohio student, instead of just those who currently qualify under household income or local school district performance standards.

This so-called “backpack bill” legislation carries a price tag of up to $1.13 billion if all eligible private school students take advantage of the vouchers.

But let’s forget all of that for a moment. Let’s put all of those ideological battles over education aside.

The tragic fact remains, as the Ohio Capital Journal reports, student hunger is pervasive in Ohio.

Ohio has more than 1.6 million public school students.

About 57% of Ohio school children meet qualifications and are participating in free and reduced lunch programs. That’s 912,000 students.

Ohio ranks 13th in the nation in percentage of children with food insecurity.

School meal debt in districts throughout the state stands at $10,000, $20,000, $40,000, even $60,000.

The Children’s Defense Fund Ohio found that 1 in 6 children and as many as 1 in 4 in some counties, faces food insecurity.

And 1 in 3 of those children facing hunger does not qualify for free or reduced meals (meaning their family falls just outside the 185% of the federal poverty line threshold required for the free or reduced price lunch program). And many others don’t participate for fear of judgment.

One-third of the 760,000 school-age children living in economically disadvantaged households would be 254,000. One-third of the 413,000 kids across Ohio who live in a household that faces hunger would be 137,000. So that’s our range of school children going hungry: somewhere between 137,000 and 254,000, using back-of-the-napkin math.

And that is where this tremendous and intolerable problem of socio-political failure in Ohio lies.

The way to overcome the gap and stigmatization is to provide universal free lunch and breakfast to every student.
Source: Ohio Department of Education

No matter what happens with charters, or private schools, 90% of Ohio’s school-aged children attend public schools, and Ohio is facing a very real social crisis in the fact that so many hundreds of thousands of those children are going hungry.

Last week, OCJ published testimony at the Statehouse recounting the tragic situations that occur when children are put in impossible social situations of not having the money to pay for food, and not wanting anyone else to know that they don’t have the money to pay for food.

The antenna of fear of social stigma and judgment is sky high in childhood and adolescence, as anyone who has ever been a child or teenager knows, which is all of us.

This issue goes so far beyond any one student in any one situation in any one district, that while these cases are necessary for the public to hear to help us all see the human costs of our policies, focusing efforts so specifically on any one case is counterproductive.

This is a statewide problem that requires a statewide solution. Advocate energy is best spent at the state level.

Every cafeteria worker, every teacher, every school administrator, every school board, and every school district is doing everything they can with every resource they have available to make sure children are fed, I have no doubt.

I’ve reported on this personally. I spent much of my career as a local newspaper reporter covering poverty and its impacts in Appalachian Ohio specifically.

I’ve interviewed superintendents, school teachers, and members of communities working to solicit donations for cold lunches, or to launch food pantries in various schools. And I’ve interviewed numerous school district treasurers negotiating the devastating impacts of another $1 million in funding cuts budget cycle after budget cycle.

I’ve interviewed many families stuck in generational poverty, suffering every form of trauma imaginable, working three jobs and scraping anything they can together every day to get over every barrier imaginable, just to try to squeak by some sort of halfway dignified existence for themselves and their loved ones.

I’ve interviewed mothers who have to choose between paying the electric bill to keep the lights on, or buying shampoo and deodorant for their family.

I’ve talked with grandmothers providing kinship care who have had to look at a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and five boxes of Mac & Cheese as “food for the week.”

People living in poverty don’t have money to grease politicians’ reelection campaigns, and they have no well-paid lobbyists at the Statehouse wielding heavy-handed influence.

They’re on their own, in almost every way, and the consequences are severe and compounded, keeping the generational cycle of poverty going in perpetuity.

Every teacher I’ve ever talked to about it has told me the same thing: Hunger is an enormous barrier to learning.

Students can not concentrate, they can not process effectively, if they are sitting there with a stomach rumbling and tumbling in knots over hunger.

Think of the sour mood you might be in if you’ve had a busy day and haven’t gotten to eat a good meal yet.

Now imagine being wholly and desperately hungry, as a child, and imagine what that might do to your developing disposition.

The idea of hundreds of thousands of hungry children in Ohio is not a concept to me; it’s a very tragic reality with very real faces and lives attached to it.

As OCJ reported, the stigma of free and reduced lunches, particularly in high schools, flows through rural, urban, and suburban districts all the same.

We have a simple and effective solution: Remove the stigma, remove the fear of judgment, remove the school meal caste system, and just feed the children, all of the children.

Students getting their l lunch at a primary school. Photo by Amanda Mills/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Don’t lie and claim we can’t afford it: Ohioans watch our government hand out billions to wealthy corporations with sweetheart lawmaking and economic policy year after year; we can afford to feed hungry children.

So do it.

Feed the children a good breakfast so they can start their days right. Feed them a full and healthy lunch so they have the energy to carry through the afternoon.

And honestly, if they’re returning to homes where they won’t get one, find a way to feed them dinner too.

While cafeteria workers, teachers, school administrators, school boards, and school districts all have a role to play in making this so, at the end of the day, this is not on them. They are also desperate for resources, because that’s the situation our state government is putting them in. But they’re here to help.

This is on the state lawmakers in Columbus, and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine who signs our laws.

I doubt Ohio lawmakers or Mike DeWine have missed many meals lately, let alone experienced gut-wrenching hunger.

They have a duty, a responsibility, a sacred obligation I’d even say, to do everything they can to make sure no Ohio schoolchildren experience gut-wrenching hunger either.

Food and shelter are our most-basic human needs.

Feed the children. Please. All of the children, all the same.

At long last, at the very least, just feed the children.

Editor’s Note: I am off next week, April 10 to April 14. My weekly column will resume on Thursday, April 20.



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David DeWitt
David DeWitt

OCJ Editor-in-Chief and Columnist David DeWitt has been covering government, politics, and policy in Ohio since 2007, including education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, state and local government, business, labor, energy, environment, and social issues. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS, and He holds a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and is a board member of the E.W. Scripps Society of Alumni and Friends. He can be found on Twitter @DC_DeWitt