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Ohio budget funds free meals for some K-12 students but advocates say it doesn't go far enough

A school cafeteria worker at Stebbins High School in Riverside cleaning the serving station.
Alejandro Figueroa
The two-year budget includes $8.4 million to fund free school meals for some income-eligible K-12 students, though some anti-hunger advocates want the state to fund universal free school meals.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) signed the state's two-year budget on Wednesday, earmarking $8.4 million to pay for free school meals for some income-eligible K-12 students. Some advocates say this does not go far enough.

The two-year budget includes $8.4 million to pay for a student's cost of a reduced price lunch. This means that about 80,000 more students in Ohio will now be able to eat for free.

Early in the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made meals free of cost for all students in nearly all public schools. However, this provision expired last summer. Studies have shown that this reduced stigma among children participating in the free lunch program and increased the amount of children eating at their schools cafeteria since the meals were free of cost.

Now, students are back to income-eligible meals or full-priced meals if they do not qualify. Basically, if a household of four makes $36,000 or less, their child qualifies for a free meal at school. If they make $51,000 or less, they pay for a portion of it. The state will now pay that portion.

Tom Zsembik, the food service supervisor at Mad River Local Schools in Riverside, said that this is significant but it doesn't go all the way.

“At the state level we really like to see them pass universal school meals, including breakfasts in making sure every kid qualifies in the morning,” Zsembik said. “But yes, lunch does go a long way. Reducing costs does go a long way.”

Several school districts across the state reported student lunch debt increased significantly after the pandemic waiver ended. One district in Central Ohio reported over $40,000 in combined student lunch debt, according to the Children’s Defense Fund Ohio.

Katherine Ungar, a policy associate at the Children's Defense Fund Ohio, said there’s more work that needs to be done at the state level.

“We're working to make Ohio a place where every student in the state has access to both breakfast and lunch at no cost,” Ungar said. “So the momentum is building across the country. And while we have this step forward that we're celebrating in our state budget, we have a lot of work left to do.”

Ungar said the nonprofit identified possible state policymakers to lobby with and push for universal free meals in Ohio. So far, a handful of neighboring states across the Midwesthave passed legislation to fund free school meals, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Illinois.

Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Copyright 2023 WYSO

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