Northeast Ohio school districts head to DC to urge Congress for more school meal funding

school lunch
Posted at 4:50 PM, Mar 10, 2023

CLEVELAND — Multiple Ohio school districts joined 800 school nutritional professionals in DC for the annual legislative action conference to speak to Congress about raising funding for school lunches.

For many families, school lunch is the most important part of the day.

“Kids can't focus and concentrate on what's being taught to them. If they're worried about, you know, what am I going to have for dinner tonight or when am I going to have another meal,” said Gina Nash with Pisanick Partners.

With the USDA’s free lunch program expired, New 5 spoke to schools in multiple counties including Stark, Summit, Portage and Lorain. They have all seen debt rise and some schools saw a double-digit increase, leaving parents unable to pay.

“We know the struggle with the families in our areas,” said Stacey Bettis with the Stark County Educational Service Center.

Those debts also become a stigma students face.

“We’re in a very small district and so our cashiers talk to the students. They can feel that fear, that shame that they have when they're going through the line and they say quietly, “Hey, do I, do I have a charge? What does it look like?” said Andrea Helton, Director of Nutrition Services for Wellington Village Schools.

These school districts renewed their call for universal free lunch statewide.

“I think it's important that we keep those meals available to the students across all demographics so that they can focus on learning,” said Nash.

So, they took those calls to nation's capital.

“We had 27 Ohio delegates that we went down, and we had 17 visits,” said Bettis.

There, districts brought multiple issues to the table, including free lunch and raised costs. During the pandemic, schools received higher reimbursement rates to help with inflation.

“We have an additional $0.15 for breakfast, an additional $0.40 for lunch. Those are set to expire in June of this year while our prices are still continuing to increase,” said Helton.

Districts say between supply chain issues, increased costs and expired free lunches, they see the impact directly on their students.

“Our reach is just decreasing, so we're feeding less students than before,” said Helton.

They're reminding Congress of the simple importance of the school meal.

“We’re not charging our students to get on the school bus and for the bus driver to drive them back again," said Jennifer Hirsch, Director of Student Nutrition with Crestwood Local Schools. She said she wants lunches "to just be something that is part of their school day."

They even went as far as offering the meal to those at the Capitol.

“I would love to always have the Congress — congressmen come into, or women come into, our buildings and always have lunch with us,” said Bettis.

Universal lunch has been brought before the state legislature in Ohio; the legislation is stalling, but school districts say they won’t stop fighting until every child is fed.

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