Public Education Matters

School meals should be no different than textbooks or transportation services provided to all public school students; they are a basic need for children to learn in school. But, since the end of the pandemic-era programs that provided free school meals for all students in all districts, too many Ohio students are going without the meals they need. On February 20, the Ohio Education Association hosted a virtual press event on behalf of the Hunger-Free School Ohio coalition to call on state lawmakers to expand access to school meals for all. This episode contains excerpts from that panel discussion.

LEARN MORE ABOUT HUNGER-FREE OHIO SCHOOLS| Click here for more information about the Hunger-Free Ohio Schools coalition's work and how you can get involved. 

WATCH THE WHOLE DISCUSSION | Click here to see the full virtual press conference that is featured in this episode, including more from the featured guests, questions from the media, and the message from Ohio House Finance Chair Rep. Jay Edwards on this issue.

READ THE WHITEPAPER| Click here to see the “School Meals Support Ohio Student Health and Learning” white paper from Children's Defense Fund-Ohio.

Featured Education Matters guests: 
  • Scott DiMauro, Ohio Education Association President
  • Katherine Ungar, Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio Senior Policy Associate who authored CDF-Ohio's recent white paper on the urgent need to expand access to school meals in Ohio.  
  • Lindy Douglas, Special Programs Coordinator, and Daryn Guarino, Director of Food and Nutrition for Alexander Local Schools in Athens County, where school lunch debt has more than doubled this year from pre-pandemic levels.  
  • Josh Kauffman, principal at Bluffton Middle School in Allen County, where students held a bake sale to pay off their classmates’ school meal debt.  
  • Meg Thompson, a parent in the Wellington Exempted School District in Lorain County whose family was denied assistance to access nutritious school meals for their children after benefiting from universal access the year before. 
Connect with OEA:
About us:
  • The Ohio Education Association represents about 120,000 teachers, faculty members and support professionals who work in Ohio’s schools, colleges, and universities to help improve public education and the lives of Ohio’s children. OEA members provide professional services to benefit students, schools, and the public in virtually every position needed to run Ohio’s schools.
  • Education Matters host Katie Olmsted serves as Media Relations Consultant for the Ohio Education Association. She joined OEA in May 2020, after a ten-year career as an Emmy Award winning television reporter, anchor, and producer. Katie comes from a family of educators and is passionate about telling educators' stories and advocating for Ohio's students. She lives in Central Ohio with her husband and two young children.
This episode contains excerpts of virtual press conference that was held live on February 20, 2023.

What is Public Education Matters?

Ohio's public schools serve 1.6 million children - 90 percent of students in the state! What happens in the classroom has impacts far beyond the walls of the K-12 school building or higher ed lecture hall. So, on behalf of the 120,000 members of the Ohio Education Association, we're taking a deeper dive into some of the many education issues facing our students, educators, and communities. Originally launched in 2021 as Education Matters, Public Education Matters is your source for insightful conversations with the people who shape the education landscape in Ohio. Have a topic you'd like to hear about on Public Education Matters? Email us at

Intro 0:07
This is Education Matters brought to you by the Ohio Education Association.

Katie Olmsted 0:15
Welcome back to Education Matters where every week we take a deep dive into the issues impacting Ohio's public schools the most. I'm your host, Katie Olmsted. And this week, the big issue we need to be talking about is child hunger. You see, during the height of the pandemic, the federal government provided free school meals to every child in every school. And we saw for ourselves what a difference that made in our students' lives and in their families' lives. But that program has now ended and too many of our students don't have access to the nutritious school meals they need. And it doesn't have to be this way. Ohio has the money right now to fix this. So the Ohio Education Association and our partners in the Hunger-Free Schools Ohio Coalition -- that's a group of more than 40 organizations ranging from food banks to the Ohio Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics -- we are all calling on our lawmakers to expand school meal access now, either in this state budget or in a standalone bill. OEA President Scott DiMauro recently hosted a virtual panel discussion with Policy Advocates, school leaders, parents, and members of the media statewide to help everyone understand this urgent issue. Let's listen to parts of that.

Scott DiMauro 1:36
We are here today because we have serious concerns about the needs of our students. You may recall that during the pandemic, universal meals were provided to students across the state and across the nation due to federal waivers. Waivers provided by the US Department of Education allowed all schools to be able to provide meals to all students at no cost in some schools, both before the pandemic and today have been able to serve meals to all students in their districts or at the individual school level through federal programs aimed at high poverty communities. But this doesn't reach many of the children and communities that would benefit from being able to serve school meals to everyone, including children in small rural schools that are unable to provide free meals for all using existing federal options. It is important to make sure that we are meeting the needs of all of our students. We know as educators that hungry students can't learn. As an educator myself, I know that if I expected my students to be able to achieve academically, then their basic needs, including their nutritional needs, needed to be met first. And the evidence is very clear. As I talked to colleagues across the state for many years, people know that students on empty stomachs really struggle to learn. We also know this is a problem because of this phenomenon that we will call lunch shaming. And it is absolutely heartbreaking when you hear stories of kindergarten children who make it to the end of the lunch line who don't qualify for free meals, don't have the money to pay for their school lunch and see their warm meal thrown in the trash can when they can't pay for their school lunch because they have debt on the books. And we'll talk a little bit about the issue of lunch that which is becoming a larger problem across the state where we have students who aren't able to pay their bills. But again, school lunch debt is just a symptom of the problem. The problem is that we're not reaching all the students that we need to reach. Before I turn it over to our first speaker, I do want to say a special thank you to Representative Jay Edwards. Representative Edwards represents southeastern Ohio from Nelsonville, currently serving as the chairperson of the House Finance Committee, and we very much appreciate him being here, as he looks to work with us with our partners across the state to address, find solutions to address this critical problem facing our children. So next, I'm going to turn it over to Katherine Ungar. Katherine Ungar is from the Children's Defense Fund of Ohio which just issued a white paper highlighting problems with child hunger and showing how solving solving these problems can benefit all of us. Welcome, Katherine.

Katherine Ungar 4:40
Thank you so much, Scott, and thank you Ohio Education Association for hosting this press conference and raising awareness on the this important issue. First and foremost, you heard from Scott that hunger in Ohio remains unacceptably high. And looking at the details here, we know that about one in six children across the state -- but as many as one in four children in certain counties -- lives in a household that faces hunger, which is around 500,000 children in Ohio. And here's the really critical point more than one in three of those kids that faces hunger does not qualify for free or reduced price meals. 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. Research also links participation in school meals to positive health outcomes. We know that school meals support nutrition throughout the entire day helping children focus throughout the school day. And those students who participate in in the school lunch programs and access those school meals are less likely to have nutrient inadequacies and more likely to consume fruits and vegetables and milk during breakfast and lunch. School meals are also associated with improved behavioral and mental health outcomes. And we know that wider access to school meals also not only benefits the child and the families but it also benefits the nutrition providers' programs. It significantly reduces the administrative work required to operate the school nutrition programs and improve school nutrition finances. The average cost of schools for producing breakfast and lunch has been shown to decrease with higher participation in the program. And speaking with several nutrition providers across our state, whom some you'll hear today, they really appreciated last year with the federal waivers when meals were available to all and they could focus on the quality and the presentation of feeding, feeding kids and those meals, rather than focus on their budgets and becoming debt collectors. Many have shared that they are torn between that that sort of main goal of feeding kids and then going after families for school meal debt. Healthy school meals for all also reduces the stigma associated with participating in the school meal programs which helps children who need school meals - which stops children who need school meals from participating. Estimates are as high that one in three students who are eligible for free or reduced price meals don't access the meals due to the stigma associated of the lunchroom of who is getting the free or reduced price meals creating these categories in the lunchroom. Multiple states have taken and are in the process of taking decisive action on student hunger and many more states are pursuing legislation this session to expand school meal access. I think really importantly, there was a survey conducted by Baldwin Wallace University in collaboration with Children's Defense Fund of Ohio, surveying Ohio parents and caregivers with students in K-12 schools in Ohio. This looked across political party across socioeconomic status, gender, race, and an overwhelming majority, 87% of respondents agree that school meals should be provided at no cost to all students, regardless of that student's ability to pay. And 82%, another overwhelming majority of Ohio parents and caregivers, agreed that school meals are helpful for their families. So in conclusion, you know, I hope you'll check out that white paper. We believe that school meals and broader access to school meals increases Ohio's future potential and Ohio's children's future potential. I'm going to hand it back over to Scott, thank you so much for having us and for being here today.

Scott DiMauro 8:34
Thank you very much for that really critical information, Katherine. As we know difficulty accessing nutritious school meals is a problem across the state, and especially in rural and Appalachian communities like the Alexander Local Schools and Athens County. Lindy Douglas, who will be joining us next, is the Special Programs Coordinator for that district. She now is going to talk about what they're seeing in their schools and how it affects their students.

Lindy Douglas 9:03
In Athens County, we have five school districts. Three receive, they meet the poverty guidelines, so every student in those three schools eat for free. Then along with Alexandria and Athens city schools, we don't meet the poverty guidelines. So we have to charge for lunches. And what we're finding is that the students who are not on free and reduced lunch, they're not eating or if they're packing in lunch, it's not a nutritional lunch. I had lunch with a couple little girls. And what I found in their lunch boxes were half molded grapes, a half a sandwich, no drink. So I encouraged them. Hey, let's go through the lunch line. Let's get a nutritional lunch. We can all eat together. What I also found is 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. So all those individual events that have happened makes you look at feeding children every day for free. In my area of Athens County, one of the most poverty stricken counties of Ohio, we have a lot of parents that have dignity, and they work hard every day, they're out there earning that paycheck. But to come up with that extra $20 a week to feed their children is very difficult for them. We call these families the working poor, they're out there doing the best they can, but they are still struggling. And I really feel that free breakfast and lunch for all students, in Ohio, the governor and the legislature have the opportunity to make a huge impact on our children, just by offering them breakfast and lunch every day. A couple of years ago, I helped Alexander initiate free breakfast for all students, because we knew this would impact our academic learning. So I am fortunate enough that I have a board that has held on to that. And we continue to feed all students breakfast for free. And the board picks up the bill on that. And I think this is a prime opportunity for the state of Ohio. If you want to impact every single child, feeding and nutrition would be a wonderful way to do that.

Scott DiMauro 11:36
Thank you very much, Lindy. So we know expanding nutrition, access to nutritious school meals isn't just the right thing to do for our students, it really makes sense for nutrition programs and districts' bottom lines as well. The research is clear that school meals for all lessens the burden on nutrition providers whose finances can then benefit from economies of scale for their programs. I can now introduce Daryn Guarino, who's the Director of Food and Nutrition for Alexander Local Schools. He's going to join us to give us a glimpse into what the transition back to a paid meal model has looked like for his district and the issues his nutrition program is facing as a result. Daryn?

Daryn Guarino 12:17
Thanks for having me. These are very important issues because food insecurity is not the best way to start your day. At present we have our lunch debt is about twice what it was pre pandemic levels. So we already know that there's a lot of kids that can't afford their lunches, and they're suffering for it. And what generally happens is long before anyone in my on my staff has to intervene and say, Hey, you can't have a lunch, the students will self select themselves, and they will pull themselves right out of the rotation. They won't come eat lunch, they will just sit quietly, or they'll go somewhere else in the school and just not be seen for a while. It's not what I like. When I was a young student myself, I suffered from the very same lack of food security, it made my day very terrible. And having a free school lunch was really something that mattered. It really helped my day. The kids that I see today that when they run into their lunch debt problems, we see they're building debt, my register operators see that debt building up, we do see it coming and it it's terrible for my staff as well as the student, because you're not going to be talking to an adult when you take a lunch away from someone, you're going to be talking to a seven year old, a six year old. It won't feel as good as the oh, just take it away. They don't deserve it. They do deserve it. And it's not their fault. And we should be able to feed them. These are some of our most precious assets and taking care of school children and giving them their basic needs, this seems almost like a no brainer. I know that we have policies and rules that are available, there are programs available that can help us that just needs to be extended to the few school districts that would really benefit from it. Those of us that have to pay for lunch. We are suffering down here. My staff suffers when they see a student going into debt, they immediately start reaching into their pockets. They start doing their best to take care of them. And if fellow citizens will take care of the students, well then we've already agreed on something and that the students should have free meals, they should have school food, worrying about it should not be part of their school day. So that's the thing that I would like to see most is that just to have some basic humanity: Feed all the children. Let them worry about schoolwork when they're at school, not about food. My staff are food providers. They're smiling moms and grandmas and dads and uncles that are happy to provide some food. We are not debt collectors. It's a different it's a different kind of business. And it's not one that that we enjoy at all. I don't want to be in it. I like to feed the kids not take away from the kids.

Scott DiMauro 14:51
Thank you, Daryn. So on the issue of school meal debt, we know that since the end of the pandemic-era programs that provided a universal meals for all having ended at the federal level, we've seen school meal debt exploding across the state. A few examples: Lancaster's school meal debt just hit $37,000. In Bluffton in Allen County, middle school students held a bake sale to pay off the meal debt of their peers. In Westerville in Franklin County where meal debt has reached more than $40,000 this year, compared to about $5,000 in 2019, the Westerville Progressive Alliance just collected donations to help pay that debt down. And Westerville's situation might be surprising to a lot of people because people think of Westerville as a relatively affluent suburb, but close to 30% of students in their high school qualify for free or reduced price meals. And many families face food insecurity, but may fall just short of the eligibility requirements for meal assistance. And countless other communities, churches, community groups and other nonprofit organizations are also trying to step up. And in Alexander local schools, which we've just heard from, they're dealing with about $7,000 in school meal debt, which is more than double what it was the year before the pandemic. And it'd be it would have been up to $12,000 that they not received a $5,000 donation to help pay that debt down. Here's the thing - we're seeing people step up generously all across the state because they care about kids. But none of those donations in any of these communities has made a real dent in the growing debt problem because it doesn't address the root cause of the issue. And the root cause of the issue is the need for students to have access to nutritious meals regardless of their ability to pay. So at this time, I'm going to introduce Josh Kauffman. He is the Bluffton Middle School principal and Allen County. It's his district where students took it upon themselves to pay off their peers' lunch debt. He's seen how the stigma around accepting assistance can prevent students from getting the meals they need. Josh?

Josh Kauffman 17:04
I'm very grateful to be here. I'm a principal at Bluffton Middle School up in Allen County, Ohio. And one of the things that happened around Christmas time was we had about 10 of our sixth grade girls - keep in mind they're 12 year olds - bake 60 dozen cookies at their homes together to pay off, out of the kindness of their own heart, the school lunch debt. And after that was done, they came in and ask our head cook who's fantastic, What is the bill going to be today? And at that time on that day, it was $899.97. That day, they cut a check for $900. And then on top of that gave additional funds to a teacher who was suffering from cancer, which I thought was fantastic. But they picked up the bill. I've touched base with my school lunch provider at school to see kind of where we were at on that day, particularly. It impacted 110 students K through 12, ranging anywhere from five years old all the way up to a senior. And that can be 10 cents all the way up to $100 worth of debt. So that was one of the things that we saw that our students you know, we're very blessed to be in a community that isn't as downtrodden as some others. However, my previous district at Pickwa City, we actually worked with the Children's Hunger Alliance, and when you hear the stigma in terms of qualification, a lot of times we just look at whether or not students qualify, or they don't. And one of the things that we did was we had them come in, and we were really interested in are students that do qualify, are they participating? And we found that in the participation of those that qualify for free and reduced breakfast and lunch, we only had 19% participating. And so then we have to take a step back and we have to look at why is that we are there and we're providing it we're not turning students down. But what is the stigma that's behind that. And what we found was when students came in our entryways, they essentially came into two doors, a car rider drop off or walker, and then a school bus line. And both of those had to go by the cafeteria, but you kind of veer off to the left in order to gain access to school breakfast. And what we found was in our survey with students, a lot of students didn't want to turn left. They just wanted to go to class like everybody else. And they didn't want to be seen eating in the cafeteria because there is the negative stigma. And so then that begs the question, what's your school going to do about it? And we started initiating the Second Chance breakfast options. We started initiate Grab and Go options for students to grab and take back to their classrooms. And then we found that just simply unfolding a six foot table and putting it at the entryway of a three level building where every single student has to walk by that and just staffing it with a kitchen staff and we used a Title One teacher, every student in the building couldn't get to their class without having to go past these white tables. And when we followed up with an additional survey later to find out if those solutions were effective, what we found is we went from 19% to 95% participation. And I think schools just have to look at the layout and the model their buildings, because sometimes that can be restrictive as well. But I think that there is certainly a stigma around that. I would ask, you know, are we offering different solutions in terms of students eating in classrooms across the board? Are we offering students that come in tardy an option to walk into the cafeteria? Or does it close at eight? What are we offering, as you know, students come in the building? I'm hoping that we come to the table with solutions.

Scott DiMauro 17:09
Thank you, Josh. And as you were sharing your story, it's a reminder that I just wanted to share with everybody, the reason that OEA has been a strong advocate for Breakfast in the Classroom is exactly for the reasons that you've talked about breaking down barriers in terms of the structure of how we deliver school meals, to ensure that you're avoiding stigma that all students have equal access. And that's so critical. It's important, I think, also today to hear from a parent perspective. Across the state, we've been hearing from nutrition providers who have felt the impact of the return to a paid lunch model. We're also hearing from parents about how the return to the paid lunch model has impacted their families. And that impact has been borne out in the numbers this year, school nutrition programs have seen declines in students accessing school meals. Going back to the Westerville for a moment, they've seen about a 1/3 reduction in how many meals they serve compared to last year. This is concerning because it means children are going hungry. But the need to expand access for school meals for all children isn't just a question of being able to afford them. For families like Megan Thompson's and other middle income families across Ohio, their lives are much better when their kids have access to meals at school. Meg is a parent of two kids, one of whom was a student in the Wellington executive School District in Lorain County. Let me turn it over to her to share her story.

Megan Thompson 22:16
Thank you so much for having me. It's been, it's been a lot for us to have to deal with. And we make it work because that's what we do. But it was much easier before when we didn't have to think about lunches. And now it's just, it feels like one more thing that we have to think about. And I wish, I hope maybe it will change in the future. And my family is we're lucky enough that we can pack good lunches for our kids, but I know that that's not the case for many other people. And it's, it's really hard to think about. It's kind of cruel, really, that that's what some families have to deal with. When they when they had lunches and breakfasts given to their kids, you just know that that was something that made their lives easier. And to just have it taken away in a way that was feels somewhat arbitrary, is really hard for, for parents to have to work with. We're in a pretty small district. And I know that the they do everything that they can here. And I just hope that in the future, there'll be more that the kids can have so that they don't have to worry about it. The meals just need to be free for the kids. And I hope in the future, that it that it definitely is.

Scott DiMauro 23:36
Thank you, Meg. And just a few takeaways. First off, it's important to keep in mind that all the problems that were brought up today can be solved by expanding access to healthy school meals for all, and the state of Ohio has the money to make that happened. We're calling on state lawmakers to commit to this effort today. We know that the federal government through the US Department of Agriculture's Food Program provides a significant amount of subsidy to school meal programs. It's the backbone of what our schools depend on. But there's a gap in the state has the opportunity to fill that gap. This isn't a partisan issue. Other states, including many Republican led states in this country, are working toward or have just passed legislation to accomplish this. Ohio can do it too. When we have stronger, smarter, healthier kids. We have a stronger, smarter, healthier, more economically competitive state. This isn't just good for kids. This isn't just good for families. This isn't just good for our schools. This is good for the state of Ohio.

Katie Olmsted 24:47
Again, this was just excerpts from that press event on February 20. To hear the full discussion including what Ohio House Finance Chair Representative Jay Edwards had to say about the possibility of getting this done this session, go to the show notes for this episode, and you'll find the link to a video recording of the event. While you're there, make sure you subscribe to Education Matters wherever you get your podcasts so you don't miss an episode in the future. Until next time, stay well.

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