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State budget set to raise eligibility for free lunches, still falls short of universal free lunch

Susan Tebben, Ohio Capital Journal,

Changes made to the budget by the Ohio House would bring more funding to school districts to feed students, but it’s not what school nutritionists asked for, which would feed everyone and remove the stigma of hunger.

The budget is now making its way through the Ohio Senate after House changes added provisions in the Ohio Department of Education budget to reimburse for reduced-price school meals.

Under the new version, the ODE would reimburse school districts to make school breakfasts and lunches available for all students eligible for reduced-price meals in schools that participate in the federal National School Breakfast Program and the similar lunch program.

According to the state, not all districts participate in the programs, but those that do would be required to provide a breakfast or lunch “at no cost to each student eligible for a reduced-price breakfast or lunch.”

To do this, appropriations to the General Revenue Fund’s newly named “School Meal Programs” line item would be increased by $4.2 million in each of the next two fiscal years.

Reduced-price meals are available for households at 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or an income of $51,338 for a family of four. Free school meals go to those at 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $36,075 or less for a family of four.

While the increase in free meals is considered an improvement, it isn’t what school nutritionists asked for during committee hearings in the House. In their statements, they emphasized the funding gap between what the districts receive now and what they’d need to pay for lunches for all students.

But that gap is what holds them back from conquering the pervasiveness of student hunger and helping students avoid the stigma of being categorized by other students as those in need of assistance.

“It’s a small positive step,” said Will Petrik, project director for the Ohio think tank Policy Matters. “Legislators should go further: They should use our collective resources to improve our collective future by ensuring every child in Ohio has at least one healthy school meal every day.”

The Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio has done studies on student hunger in Ohio, and found that one in six children in Ohio faces food insecurity, and school districts across the state still have thousands in student meal debt.

That debt forces districts to deny students the hot lunch for the day if they can’t pay off the debt, leading to alternative cold lunch options, or the embarrassment keeping the child from coming to the cafeteria at all, as districts testified to House and Senate committees during the ongoing budget process.

Limiting the free lunches to those qualify for free or reduced lunches doesn’t solve the problem, according to Katherine Ungar, senior policy associate for the CDFO.

“Unfortunately, the threshold for reduced-priced meals is only set at 185 percent of the FPL, meaning many families fall just outside that, but still cannot afford school meals,” Ungar told the OCJ.

She cited Chesapeake Union Exempted Village School District’s superintendent Doug Hale’s testimony, where he told the Senate Education Committee that many families in his district fall outside the threshold by merely $100, though there are more within $1,000 of qualifying.

“We are asking the Senate to preserve the funding cover reduced-priced meals and to invest in school breakfast for all students, guaranteeing that all Ohio students have access to at least one school meal per day,” Ungar said.

The deadline for final budget approval is June 30 for appropriations to be effective on the first day of the new fiscal year, July 1. After the bill goes through the Senate, it will head to conference committee, before heading to the governor’s desk for his signature.

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (Ky.) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.