There's a Staggering Rise in School Lunch Debt Across Ohio

87% of Ohioans think school meals should be free for all students

click to enlarge There's a Staggering Rise in School Lunch Debt Across Ohio
D.C. Central Kitchen/FlickrCC

As families struggle with inflation and high gas prices, Ohio schools said they are seeing a staggering rise in the number of students whose parents cannot afford to pay for lunch, but who do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Lindy Douglas, coordinator of whole child and wellness programs for Alexander Local Schools in Athens County, said school lunch debt has more than doubled this year from pre-pandemic levels.

She pointed out cafeteria workers are being forced to deny children food because they owed charges.

"That was a little heartbreaking for my staff to deny children and take the tray away," Douglas noted.

According to the group Hunger Free Schools Ohio, it would cost the state less than $2 per child per day to provide free school meals to all students in Ohio.

Advocates said eliminating school meal debt and significantly reducing the administrative work required to operate School Nutrition Programs could help solve the problem.

One in six Ohio children, and as many as one in four children in certain counties, lives in a household facing hunger. Douglas emphasized even kids who received free school breakfasts do not always get fed, and start the day on an empty stomach.

"What I also found is that children who come to school late, they end up in panic mode, worried to death they're not going to get their breakfast because they missed it and the doors closed," Douglas observed.

Katherine Ungar, policy associate for the Children's Defense Fund of Ohio, said school meals are just as important to student's academic success as textbooks.

"They are linked to better educational outcomes, including increased test scores, improved academic attendance and increased graduation rates," Ungar outlined.

A 2022 survey conducted by Baldwin Wallace University in collaboration with Children's Defense Fund-Ohio found 87% of respondents agreed school meals should be provided at no cost to all Ohio students.
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