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Ohio budget earmarks money for hunger relief, 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.

The Ohio House passed its version of the state's $88 billion two year budget on Wednesday. In it, policymakers earmarked money for hunger relief, including partly funding free school meals for some children.

Early in the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which oversees the National School Lunch Program — made meals free of cost for all students in nearly all public schools. But that ended last summer after the provision expired.

Now, kids who are income-eligible are back to free and reduced meals. If a child is not eligible, they pay for the full cost of the lunch which can range anywhere from $1.25 to more than $3 per day.

If a household of four makes $36,000 or less, their child qualifies for a free meal at school. If the household makes $51,000 or less, they pay for a portion of it.

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.

The two-year House budget includes $8.4 million to pay the family’s cost for that reduced price lunch. Essentially making it so that students on the reduced meal program can get a free meal.

Katherine Ungar, a policy associate at Children’s Defense Fund Ohio, said this a significant provision. Although it doesn’t go all the way.

“We want this to be free at no cost for all students in Ohio because we know the benefits when all students can go to a cafeteria and there's no labels of who's free, who's reduced,” Ungar said. School meals are linked with a number of benefits such as school attendance, math scores, and then, of course, [improved] physical health, behavioral health.”

A report from the School Nutrition Association found over 800 school districts across the country, including Ohio, have over $19 million in unpaid meal debt.

Ungar said because of it, less students are participating in their schools lunch program.

“The ultimate crux of it is less students are accessing really important school nutrition,” Ungar said. “And so we are hopeful and we're excited to work with the Senate and hoping that that provision stays in and makes it to the finish line.”

The budget also includes $15 million toward the Ohio Food Program and Agricultural Clearance Program — which funds wholesale food purchases for the state's network of food banks.

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