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Pandemic aid extended for school meals in Ohio, but with changes

USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.
Lance Cheung
USDA Flickr creative commons
USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

President Biden signed The Keep Kids Fed Act at the end of June, extending pandemic flexibilities for schools meals, although with some changes that mean universal free lunches will end in the fall.

Early in the pandemic, the U.S Department of Agriculture — which oversees several school nutrition programs — waived many of the rules around school meals.

That included an increase in meal reimbursement rates for school lunches and breakfasts. It eased paperwork and prevented schools from being penalized for not being able to meet nutrition standards due to supply chain disruptions.

During the pandemic, over 95% of schools in Ohio reported experiencing disruptions, such as food orders arriving with missing or substituted items, and labor shortages.

The waivers also relaxed some school summer feeding program rules, such as allowing students to grab lunches to-go — which increased summer meal participation among children more than ever before.

Many of those waivers were set to expire at the end of June. But lawmakers extended them five days before the deadline.

In a statement, US. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the waivers will ensure students and schools have access to healthy food for the upcoming year.

“Ohio families now have the peace of mind that healthy meals will be accessible for their children and the local community,” Brown said. “This will give Ohio schools the flexibility they need, support our local summer feeding programs, and make it easier for schools to weather supply chain and inflation challenges throughout the year.”

What’s changing?

The biggest change is that schools will go back to the free and reduced meals rules — which means students that meet income requirements could get free or less expensive meals. Students who aren’t eligible will pay full cost.

During the pandemic, the USDA suspended eligibility requirements for free meals, essentially providing universal free lunch to all students.

Tom Zsembik, the food service supervisor at Mad River Local Schools, said he worries about students collecting lunch debt — especially now with high inflation.

“The big concern is the parents filling out the free and reduced application because they haven’t done it in three years,” Zsembik said. “The other concern is in terms of meal money. Can they come up with $10 a week to have lunch?”

For a child to meet free lunch eligibility their household income must be at or below 130% of the poverty level. Children with family incomes between 130% and 185% of the poverty level are eligible for reduced price meals.

Children whose families participate in SNAP (commonly known as food stamps) are enrolled for free meals automatically.

Zsembik worries about children whose family is close to meeting the requirements but miss it because their household income is not low enough.

“With the rising gas prices, the rising food prices, and with our school district not being an affluent school district, my great concern right now is how are the parents going to afford this?” he said.

Applications for free and reduced meals opened July 1. Zsembik said he’s urging parents to check if their child is eligible.

What's staying?

The flexibilities included in the bill allow for increased reimbursement rates for school lunch and breakfast to offset the cost of rising food prices.

It keeps program administrative and paperwork flexibilities — such as not penalizing schools for not staying with nutritional standards set by the USDA due to supply chain disruptions.

It also extends free meals for all children until the end of the summer. Brigette Hires, the director of the Office of Child Nutrition at the Ohio Department of education, said the extension will help schools prevent child hunger during the summer months when school is out.

“Usually for the summer food service program, it has to happen in areas where there's at least 50% of children that qualify for free or reduced meals,” Hires said. “So the new waiver allowed all areas to qualify for the summer food service program through Sept. 30.”

The Ohio Department of Education is waiting on more guidance from the USDA. But Hires said some schools could start serving free grab-and-go meals for children as soon as mid-July.

As for free lunch, Zsembik said the last two years were essentially a pilot for what universal free school meals could look like, and hopes the federal government takes it into account for future school nutrition legislation.

“We just want to make sure these kids get fed. We want to make sure that they come to school, eat breakfast, eat lunch, do well in school, and then graduate and move on,” Zsembik said.

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