Jul 24, 2023 - Education

Ohio will pay for more kids' meals this school year

Illustration of a cafeteria lunch tray with a plate and silverware on it and on the plate there are fruits and vegetables making a smiley face.

Illustration: Victoria Ellis/Axios

Thousands more Ohio students will be eligible for free school meals this year due to a new, $8.4 million allotment in the recently signed state budget.

Why it matters: Research shows free access to school meals improves students' health and academic achievement.

What's happening: Ohio students who apply and qualify for reduced-price meals, based on family income, will now receive the food at no cost to them.

  • That was about 74,000 kids last year — including nearly 8,200 in Franklin County — per Ohio Department of Education data.
  • Previously, those families paid 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast. Now the state will spend $4.2 million annually, for the next two years, to foot the bill.

By the numbers: That's a savings of about $126 annually for a child eating reduced-price breakfast and lunch every school day.

The big picture: The change comes as an increasing number of states are considering making meals free for all students, regardless of income.

  • Michigan is the seventh to approve it, at an estimated cost of $160 million this year.

Flashback: During the pandemic — the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years — the federal government provided funding for all U.S. students to receive free school meals.

  • When the program ended last year, school lunch participation dropped dramatically.
  • Many students also racked up meal debt. In Lancaster schools — where about 45% of its 6,200 students eat for free and 8% are on reduced prices — such debt exceeded $50,000 last school year, food service supervisor Karah Smith tells Axios.

What we're watching: In a statement, Children's Defense Fund-Ohio called the state budget move "a step in the right direction."

  • The Fund leads a Hunger-Free Schools Ohio advocacy group that is urging state lawmakers to make school meals free for all children.

What they're saying: "Food shouldn't be political," School Nutrition Association of Ohio president Ashley Morena tells Axios. "If they get transportation to school, and books, why not the food as well?"

How to know if you qualify

How it works: Families must submit an application to their district to receive free or reduced-price meals — except in districts where all students automatically receive free meals due to community poverty levels (Columbus and Whitehall locally).

  • Families receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits — and, new for this year, Medicaid benefits — also automatically qualify for free meals.
  • A family of four with a household income of $55,000 or less qualifies for reduced-price meals, or $46,000 or less for a family of three, per federal guidelines.

Which local districts will benefit most

Data: Ohio Department of Education; Note: Columbus and Whitehall students all receive free meals through the federal government, due to community poverty levels; Chart: Axios Visuals

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