Coalition calls for universal free lunches at all Ohio schools, funded by state

Hunger Free Schools Ohio, a coalition of education and hunger groups, is calling on state government to fund universal free school lunches and breakfasts at all Ohio schools.

The proposal would cost about $200 million, said Katherine Ungar, a Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio Policy Associate, who recently wrote a white paper outlining the impact of adding universal free school breakfast and lunch to Ohio. The entire state budget for the current fiscal year is about $81.1 billion.

Ungar said that about one in six children across Ohio, or more than 400,000 kids across the state, live in a household that faces hunger.

“Here’s the really critical point: more than one in three of those kids that face hunger does not qualify for free or reduced-price meals,” she said.

In March of 2020, the federal government, which oversees and funds the school breakfast and lunch programs through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, relaxed rules that stated how and when students could get free breakfast and lunch in their school buildings.

The relaxation of rules meant families could pick up lunches from school districts and eat them outside of the building, and it meant that anyone would be able to get a free school breakfast or lunch, regardless of their income level or their districts’ qualifications. But the program ended at the beginning of this school year.

Advocates for free school lunches and breakfasts say the programs expanded access to food for several reasons. Students who felt shame for needing a free lunch may have been more likely to take the food anyways because their parents didn’t need to fill out a form, but also because their peers would get the same free food whether they qualified. Cafeteria workers and teachers both say some kids feel intense shame about needing a free lunch and will turn it down.

But school food workers also said the universal program meant they were able to create more nutritious food for the kids they served and about 20% more children participated.

Now, some groups, including the Ohio chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children’s Hunger Alliance, teachers’ unions like the Ohio Education Association and the Ohio Federation of Teachers and more have suggested the state government pay for universal free breakfasts and lunches for all students.

Lee Truesdale, the chief development officer of The Foodbank, which supplies food to thousands of people in Montgomery, Greene and Preble counties, said the organization doesn’t have an official stance on this policy but in general, believes kids should be fed.

Food insecurity locally impacts over 32,000 children across Montgomery, Greene, and Preble counties, Truesdale said, and inflation is impacting families’ ability to pay for groceries. Some SNAP benefits will also end in March, which Truesdale said will further impact many households.

“Overwhelmingly, we believe and know that providing all children with a free and nutritious lunch greatly aids in a child’s ability to learn and grow,” Truesdale said.

Locally, only a handful of districts qualify for federally funded universal free breakfast and lunch for their students. Qualifying districts include Dayton Public Schools and Trotwood-Madison. Some buildings in Fairborn schools also qualify, but only up to grade 8.

Megan Thompson, a parent in the Wellington Exempted School District in Lorain County, spoke at a press conference held by Hunger Free Schools Ohio and said the offering during the pandemic helped get her kids to school on time while knowing they would still have something to eat when they got there.

“We can pack the lunches for our kids, but I know that that’s not the case for many other people and it’s really hard to think about,” Thompson said. “It’s kind of cruel, really, that’s what some families have to deal with.”

About the Author