Ohio Education Leaders Support Free School Meals for All

Ohio school districts that implemented free school meals for all reported 20% increase in student participation.

Education officials in Ohio want state leaders to invest in free school meals for all students.

Pandemic-era federal waivers enabling schools to offer breakfast and lunch at no cost expired in June, meaning families in need of assistance have to income-qualify for federal school meal programs. For a family of four, it's about $51,000 a year for reduced-priced meals and $36,000 for free meals.

Andrea Helton, registered dietitian and director of Nutrition Services for the Wellington Exempted Village School District, worried kids will fall through the cracks.

"I've had some calls from families upset because they missed the cutoff by maybe a couple hundred dollars," Helton recounted. "They've expressed to me that it's upsetting that the applications only include gross income, and do not include a lot of those other factors that go into providing food for children, every single day."

The Ohio State Board of Education is recommending the General Assembly use American Rescue Plan Act funds to offer no-cost breakfast and lunch to all Ohio students through the remainder of the school year.

Katherine Ungar, senior policy associate for the Children's Defense Fund of Ohio, explained Ohio has spent about 65% of it's nearly $5.4 billion federal allocation.

"But that leaves us with almost $2 billion left to be allocated," Ungar pointed out. "We're hopeful that they'll use a very small portion of that to fund school meals for all, for this school year."

Research links school meals to improved attendance, academic achievement and cognitive function. Ungar noted free meals allow students to focus on school instead of hunger.

"But it's also hugely beneficial to nutrition providers who, instead of focusing and worrying about collecting school meal debt, can instead focus their attention on deciding what will be on the menu, making sure it's healthy and nutritious for our students," Ungar contended.

Helton added access to regular, nutritious meals can set children up for future success.

"Children are said to at least consume half of their caloric intake during the school day," Ungar explained. "Which means that this is the perfect opportunity for us to promote lifelong healthy habits, and to give exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables."

One in five Ohio kids is considered food insecure and in a recent survey, 87% of Ohio parents said they support free school meals for all students.

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