VOICES: Every K-12 student in Ohio deserves equal access to nutritious school meals

“Food insecurity” is being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious food. Approximately 40 million Americans live in food insecure households. According to the Children’s Hunger Alliance, as many as 1 in 4 children in Ohio are unsure of where their next meal is coming from and over 600,000 children across the state are living in food insecure households.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define social determinants of health (SDOH) as conditions of the environment in which people are born, grow, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age. Food insecurity is a social determinant of health that has been partially addressed via governmental assistance programs such as: the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); the National School Lunch Program; the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP); the School Breakfast Program; Summer Nutrition Programs; and Afterschool Nutrition Programs. There are also community resources such as food vouchers, food banks and food pantries that have been created to assist people experiencing food insecurity. These governmental programs, community resources and services present opportunities for partnerships between various sectors including community-based organizations, schools, and healthcare organizations.

Economic and physical access to healthy food is critical to ensuring food security. Food insecurity and associated undernutrition adversely affect health and socioeconomic development for individuals and communities. Access to foods that support healthy eating patterns contributes to an individual’s health throughout life. According to Healthy People 2030, individuals who do not have access to convenient, reliable transportation, or who do not have grocery stores/restaurants with healthy choices within walking distance, have limited access to foods that support healthy eating.

While great strides have been made in addressing food insecurity and improving health, continued progress is needed. Communities must identify the most impactful ways to use locally available resources to make the best progress. Connecting children and their families to federal nutrition programs that benefit children and their families is a necessary strategy to address food insecurity and the associated negative consequences.

The 2021 Health Value Dashboard™ of the Health Policy Institute of Ohio (HPIO) indicates that Ohio ranks 38th out of 50 states and D.C. when it comes to physical environment, which includes food access and food insecurity. Heart disease mortality and food insecurity are two of Ohio’s greatest challenges. An opportunity for prevention policies in this space is to expand programs that increase access to healthy food such as school breakfast/lunch programs and fruit and vegetable incentives.

As a Board Member of the American Heart Association in Dayton, I am concerned about the information shared in the article titled “Universal free school lunch program won’t be in place this fall at most schools.” Connecting children and their families to nutrition programs (including school lunch programs) that benefit them is a necessary strategy to help address food insecurity and the associated negative consequences such as poor academic performance and poor health.

It is my hope that the Ohio legislature and Governor DeWine will help ensure that every K-12 student in Ohio has equal access to nutritious school meals. Providing healthy school meals at no cost for every student across the state, regardless of income is crucial to reducing childhood hunger, promoting student health, and enhancing academic achievement.

Kimberley Freeman is a Public Health Leader, Doctor of Public Health Candidate, and Board Member of the Dayton Chapter of the American Heart Association.

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