Coalition: Universal School Food Program to Cost State $200 Million; Chairman Edwards Counts Votes
Bills in this Story
HB33 FY24-25 OPERATING BUDGET (Edwards, J)

A representative of the Hunger-Free Schools Ohio Coalition set a price tag of $200 million in state money Monday to provide free breakfast and lunch to all K-12 students, regardless of a family’s ability to pay.

The coalition hosted a press conference with members including the Ohio Education Association (OEA), Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), school district staff and parents.

“Every child in Ohio, regardless of where they’re from, what they look like or how much money their parents make, needs to be able to eat full, nutritionally complete meals at school … allowing them to focus on what they’re learning, not on the hunger pangs they’re feeling,” said OEA President Scott DiMauro, who hosted the discussion.

"Although the pandemic-era federal programs that ensured every Ohio child could receive free meals at school have ended, there is more than enough money in Ohio right now to ensure no student goes without the meals they need,” he said.

CDF Policy Associate Katherine Ungar, who has written the white paper “School Meals Support Ohio Student Health and Learning,” said between one in four and one in six children live in food-insecure households, depending on the county, for a total of 413,000 children.

“We hope lawmakers will prioritize our kids and school nutrition programs in this biennial budget by expanding critical access to school meals,” Ungar said, putting state costs at $60 million for universal K-12 breakfast and $200 million for breakfast and lunch, beyond federal allotments for free and reduced food programs.

She said spending state dollars would maximize the federal reimbursement rate and reduce food waste by increasing predictability through universal enrollment.

“We do think the resources are there,” DiMauro added. “The question is whether there is the political will to make this happen. This isn’t a partisan issue.”

Bluffton Middle School Principal Josh Kauffman said the hunger problem goes beyond the pure availability of free and reduced food.

“Qualifying students don’t want to eat because of the stigma,” he said of the district’s past experience. “But thatstigma disappears when systems are in place to provide healthy school meals for all.”

He said setting up tables with breakfast bags near the school entrance equalized all children and expanded program participation from 19 percent to 95 percent.

Megan Thompson of Wellington Exempted School District described her experience as a parent transitioning from emergency school food programs during COVID-19 back to normal life, calling it an “arbitrary” shift.

“It was much easier before when we didn’t have to think about lunches,” Thompson said. “I hope that we can pack good lunches for our kids, but I know that’s not the case for other people. It just has to happen that meals need to be free for the kids.”

Ungar noted the Biden administration already is working on expanding the school breakfast and lunch program to Medicaid-enrolled families.

A reporter wondered whether schools might begin auto-enrolling children in the food program, even if the General Assembly doesn’t fill the gap for universal eligibility -- and “snowball this into a free lunch for all.”

It was suggested the governor and certain legislators are potentially interested in expanding school breakfast and lunch. House Finance Committee Chairman Rep. Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville) participated in the virtual press conference.

“If a kid is coming to school hungry, math and science really isn’t that important,” Edwards said. “My job is very easy. I have to count to 50 and make sure we can get the votes on the budget.”

Ungar’s white paper can be found at

Story originally published in The Hannah Report on February 20, 2023.  Copyright 2023 Hannah News Service, Inc.