July 21, 2024

Coalition Calls for Free School Meals to Avoid Child Hunger Cliff

By Mary Schuermann Kuhlman

Much like textbooks and transportation, a healthy lunch is a vital part of a child’s school day and can help achieve educational success.

Since March 2020, U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers have allowed schools to serve meals at no cost to all children, regardless of income.

Katherine Ungar, policy associate for the Children’s Defense Fund of Ohio, explained it proved to be an effective policy. 

“We saw an increase in school meal uptake as a result of those waivers,” Ungar recounted. “Indicating that those school meals are really important when we think about childhood hunger and make sure that our students succeed.”

The waivers expired at the end of the school year. Ungar said it means an estimated 1.4 million Ohio children will lose access to free school meals. The Hunger-Free Schools Ohio Coalition is calling on state leaders to use funding from the American Rescue Plan or other sources to supplement the cost of providing school meals for districts.

Ungar explained without the waivers, there is a whole subset of families who are struggling but might be just above the 185% of the federal poverty level, who will no longer qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. They will either have to purchase meals at full cost or pack their lunch.

“Which is going to just put a huge strain on the budget of families, not to mention the huge increase in prices of food alone,” Ungar emphasized. “Grocery bills are exorbitant now, and that’s really expensive when we think about feeding a family.”

She added some of Ohio’s larger urban districts are able to use the federal Community Eligibility Provision, which allows high poverty schools to offer meals at no cost to all. 

“What that’s shown is it reduces stigma so that certain kids are getting the free and reduced-price meals and certain kids are having to pay full price,” Ungar contended. “There’s no differentiation, and they see an increase in school meal uptake.”

The coalition is also asking state leaders to encourage all eligible districts to pursue the provision and provide technical assistance to implement it.