[00:00:18] Speaker A: Hi.
[00:00:18] Speaker B: Welcome back to just a bite. It's Sarah from the Ohio Association of Food Banks.
As Ohio kids returned to the classroom, hope and I sat down with three strong advocates for Ohio students to talk about the meaningful investment in school meals that was passed in the state budget in early July. We first met with Matthew Tippett and Catherine Unger at the Children's Defense Fund, Ohio. Then I spoke with Tom Zembeck, the food service Director at Mad River Local Schools in Montgomery County, to talk about what this investment means to his district and why he is so passionate about feeding his kids and his community.
We cover what this policy change means for students receiving reduced price school meals, what kept these advocates energized as they organized and communicated with lawmakers, and what opportunities there are to make sure all Ohio children are well fed and nourished. Take a listen.
[00:01:36] Speaker C: The state budget is over. Thank God.
It was a hell of an animal this time.
[00:01:43] Speaker A: It was.
[00:01:45] Speaker C: And now we are facing yet another hectic time for some specifically, parents trying to get their kids ready and prepared for the upcoming school year. I have a 13 year old going into 8th grade and his foot somehow got two sizes bigger since he went into 7th grade, so that's been really fun for me. Sarah, your brother is a senior?
[00:02:08] Speaker D: Yeah, he just turned 18 and he's going to be a high school senior and I'm really anxious to see what he does after high school.
[00:02:16] Speaker C: Great. Matthew, any kids in your family?
[00:02:20] Speaker E: No, only child and thankfully out of high school now.
[00:02:25] Speaker F: I'm sure your mom's happy about that.
[00:02:27] Speaker C: Catherine. What about Noah? Too young for school?
[00:02:29] Speaker F: Yeah, too young for school. But he's in daycare.
[00:02:34] Speaker C: Yeah, a new book bag, at least for him. Go to daycare. So we know that back to school for families of all backgrounds can be stressful, as it means not just new teachers and a new grade, but a new after school sitter or a program, new school clothes, new school shoes, new supplies, new hygiene products, and more. And for some families, the challenges are even greater, like developing a new transportation plan and figuring out how to afford meals. So that's what we're here to talk.
[00:02:59] Speaker A: About today for our listeners, we featured.
[00:03:02] Speaker D: Catherine earlier this year, and thus earlier in the state budget process, where she shared with us in great detail what inspired her and CDF Ohio to start.
[00:03:13] Speaker A: A Hunger Free Schools campaign in Ohio, and why school meals matter. If you haven't yet listened to that.
[00:03:19] Speaker D: Episode, we encourage you to start there.
[00:03:22] Speaker C: So, Catherine, I think you and your team at Children's Defense Fund, as well as your entire Hunger Free Schools Ohio Coalition, has some good news to share for low income parents with these stressors on their minds. Please share how the coalition's priorities landed in the state budget process.
[00:03:36] Speaker F: Yeah. And thank you so much for having us today. We're really excited to be back and to be able to share good news, especially with this roller coaster of a budget that we had. So I just agree with the sentiment that I'm very glad that the budget is over, but we are really proud of where we ended up. Of course, initially, our advocacy was for school meals for all students, regardless of their family incomes. And unfortunately, that's not where we ended up. But what we did get in the final version of the budget includes an additional $4.2 million investment each year for school meals. And this will now allow every student who qualifies for reduced price meals to be eligible for a free school breakfast and lunch. And just for those listening, those who would qualify for a reduced price meal would be if their family incomes are at 185% or less of the federal poverty level. Yeah.
[00:04:30] Speaker D: Can you talk a little bit about the number of families and kids that would be impacted by this? Who are we talking about here when we talk about reduced price meals?
[00:04:41] Speaker F: Yeah, and I know we went into a lot more detail in the first episode of this podcast, but essentially, if you and your family are at 130% of the federal poverty level or below, you would qualify for a free school meal through the federal National School Lunch Program. But if you're between 130% and 185%, you'll now also be able to access free meals. So under the federal program, you still sort of qualify as reduced. But the state is stepping in and going to supplement that so that those families will now receive free breakfast and lunch at no cost. We estimate that this is around 74,000 additional students in our state who now have access to both breakfast and lunch at no cost at school.
And I think we'll get into this a little bit more later. But simultaneous to this program, starting this school year, we'll also have a demonstration project that Ohio was accepted into, which is a Medicaid direct certification for free or reduced priced meals. So we anticipate that the number of students who qualify for reduced price meals will go up as a result of that program.
[00:05:47] Speaker D: Yeah, that's huge. I know that this is not exactly what you guys originally asked for, but is a huge, meaningful first step for this campaign.
Is this for all students?
Does that include home school charter, virtual schools?
[00:06:07] Speaker E: Well, first, thank you for having me on, too. This program will impact public and chartered non public schools that participate in a national school lunch program.
[00:06:17] Speaker C: Yeah, this is incredible, but I really do worry for the low income children whose parents may not have filled out the free and reduced price meal application.
Oftentimes, kids receive this information at the beginning of the school year with few, if any, reminders to fill it out if your circumstances change, which they can very much do. So during the nine month school year, parents lose their jobs, they move, circumstances change. Not to mention things are mostly digital now, which requires access to a computer, Internet, and the username and the password to your child's portal. There's a lot to unpack to just access a free and reduced price application these days. Is there a way to capture the low income kids without that application on file? I think you said something about a Direct certification.
[00:07:02] Speaker F: Yeah, so I can talk about that a little bit more. So before this demonstration project, if your family qualified for Snap, for example, you would be directly certified for free or reduced price meals, meaning your family wouldn't have to fill out an application, but through data matching, the school would. Basically, you'd be qualified for free or reduced price meals just as a result of participating in the Snap program. That's now going to expand to if you are enrolled in Medicaid, which is, of course, a higher threshold of students. And so that's going to capture a lot more students from that Direct certification standpoint. Now, I will say it's still really important that families are aware of and continue to fill out the free and reduced price forms. Even if you do qualify through a Direct certification, there'd be no consequence for filling out a free or reduced priced meal application form. And that will help us in how much federal reimbursement we get and the drawdown and then sort of minimizing that state share. So I know we're definitely pushing for that. We're working with our Ohio Department of Education on what implementation of this program looks like, and one of the big things we're stressing is making sure schools are getting ahead of and letting families know about this program and then also encouraging them to complete their applications. I know that there are some schools through the nutrition providers that I've talked to that are trying to send alerts through those online portals and think of other ways of reaching families. Put it in the backpack multiple times a year, have check ins where they're really making sure that free and reduced price application is a priority for families.
[00:08:37] Speaker D: Will there be any efforts to ensure that the free and reduced price application.
[00:08:42] Speaker A: Is more accessible to families?
[00:08:45] Speaker E: Yes, definitely. That is one of the biggest things to follow through on. Through the Hunger Free Schools Ohio Coalition, we've built a big network of school administrators, nutrition providers, and grassroots organizations who we will continue to work with to help build flyers, materials, social media, posts, any and everything to get the word out there that the application is very important and to encourage people to apply. And we also hope to work with the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce to ensure that families are aware of where and can access the application when.
[00:09:19] Speaker C: It comes out and remind us. There are states who have passed legislation to utilize state dollars to cover meals for everyone. Right. Who are those states again? And has anyone, to your knowledge, gone from covering reduced price only students to everyone?
[00:09:34] Speaker F: Yes, the momentum is definitely building around the country when we think about healthy school meals for all. So currently there are seven states that have passed permanent legislation to cover the cost of school meals for all students. That list continues to grow and I believe will grow in the next couple of months. I know we're still waiting to hear what Massachusetts does, but currently it includes Maine, California, Colorado, which, interestingly, did this through a ballot initiative. Vermont, New Mexico, Minnesota, and then most recently, our friends up north in Michigan, minnesota and New Mexico are just two examples of states that know previously, I think years ago, honestly eliminated their reduced price to meal copay. So what we just did in the budget, but now they have universal meals for all students.
We're definitely really excited to see what these state, the data coming out of these states. I know that there's going to be a lot of research on sort of this transition and what it looks like on participation rates and how many students are continuing to access those meals. So I think that will really help bolster our campaign here in Ohio.
And interestingly, there are other additional steps we can take along the way. Minnesota took some of those steps before passing healthy school meals for all, including providing funding to offer free breakfast to all kindergarten students or providing nutrition programs and some additional reimbursement for free or reduced price meals for schools.
[00:11:01] Speaker D: So we talked a lot about what inspired you here and in the previous episode to start the campaign and coalition, but I know it has been a very hard six months of advocacy, endless committee meetings, testimony, and coalition work. At the end of the day, you are trying to convince people that kids should not be hungry, which surprisingly is no easy feat. What kept you both encouraged during this process?
[00:11:31] Speaker F: Yeah, thank you for asking that question because I definitely think it was that process, as arduous as it was, that kept us going and keeps us going because definitely our work is not done. But for me, it was really the students that got involved in the campaign and then hearing their testimony.
And I heard devastating stories from nutrition providers around school meal debt shaming, and I'd mentioned this in the earlier podcast. But I just want to mention again because even though we've eliminated the reduced price category, in a sense, it's still very much happening for those who would be on the paid meals where the idea is that a kindergartner can go up in the lunch line and get their hot meal, walk down to the point of sale system, find out that they've accrued a certain debt threshold as determined by that district, and have their meal literally thrown in the trash and taken away. And you can think about what that does to the kids.
Psych. And it's just embarrassing. And it's also really devastating for the nutrition provider. I heard from so many cafeteria workers who take money out of their own pocket to prevent this from happening and keep in mind they're making minimum wage dollars, so this is just a problem all around. And then I was also really inspired just by the superintendents, students and nutrition staff who took time out of their schedule to come to the State House and offer testimony. I think it was their testimony that pushed us over the line, especially the students. I noticed that when a student stands up there and is really sincere and it's very meaningful and all the legislators stop what they're doing and listen. And to me that was just the most impactful thing that we've done in this campaign. And finally, just in the year 2023, I think that we can afford and prioritize making sure that no kid goes hungry in school. And I know that we agree on this point or hungry period. We don't need to have labels of kids in our lunchrooms when we eat meals together. It should be a social and should be a very inclusive experience, not one that divides us based on what our family incomes are.
[00:13:31] Speaker E: Yeah, and for me, honestly, as somebody who kind of got into the game with hunger free schools late, it was the possibility of getting the work done. It seemed so important to me for many reasons. It was a topic that was kind of personal for me because I was a free lunch kid who at times didn't feel right about it because my friends were paying for lunch and I wasn't. And so I understood the possibility of shame there. So that was really impactful. And then also getting to work with legislators on a topic that was really surprising to see. Some of their passion for a lot of the compassion and passion in some of these people jumped out and that was great to see, but the work isn't done yet. And so I'm in double Dutch mode, just rocking back and forth, ready to ready to see what's next.
[00:14:17] Speaker C: Did you guys find that this was like a very bipartisan or nonpartisan issue in your experience? Or were you able to get legislators on both sides to really see the importance and had champions on both sides?
[00:14:34] Speaker F: I would say at first, yes. I mean, I think this question is a difficult one because of the states that are moving forward with universal school meals or healthy school meals for all. We have now started to see a divide and I think there was a national article sort of from conservative members saying we're going to ban the ability to do this in states. And so I worry what that means. I will say when we started these conversations, we were really encouraged by how much bipartisan support there was. And I think the budget process was really impactful for us because we've identified on both sides of the aisle who those champions would be for expanding school meal access. I don't know if we'll get them to go all the way in a bill, I'm hopeful and eventually I'm thinking we will. But I think we can definitely take incremental steps with some of these members that we've identified. And definitely Matthews, having worked in the State House and his relationships, was just huge when it comes to this work.
[00:15:35] Speaker E: Yeah, and the only thing I would add is that there are a few legislators who I think on both sides of the aisle took extra steps to make sure this got done. And I would love to shout them out personally, but I don't know if they would like that. So I'll just say, you know who you are and we appreciate your work and we will be talking to you very soon to try to get some more done.
[00:15:58] Speaker C: Good. Yeah. Actually, that's what's next. So what's next for the Hunger Free Schools Ohio Coalition? Is this it? You guys have mentioned several times on today that you can't wait and you can't wait and you can't wait for what's next. So what is next?
[00:16:14] Speaker F: Yeah, our work is definitely not done. We've, I think, done a really good job of building coalition and we need to keep everyone engaged in this because this is not an issue that's going away.
We are really excited about the prospect of helping with implementation and outreach. When we think about this new program that was implemented in our budget, of course, we're going to have a budget again in two years. We need to make sure this is a program that is sustained and then we need to build on top of that through standalone bills, through programs that can be done through Ode, for example, making sure we're participating in something like the demonstration project. We are probably going to see, I would assume in the next couple of years, some federal legislation that expands school meals, whether that is school meals for all I mean, I'm hopeful for that. Or expanding our community eligibility provision. I think there's a lot of work our coalition can do because it's such a blend of dynamic organizations and people in making sure Ohio is moving in the right direction of expanding school meals.
[00:17:14] Speaker E: The only thing I would add is the next step is universality in Ohio. It's very important to make sure that every kid has a meal just because it's the most important thing you can do. If kids aren't eating at school, they can't think about math, they can't think about reading, they can't think about science. So let's make sure that every kid has a meal and not just those that fall into these categories.
[00:17:40] Speaker C: So Matthew, you talked a lot about lunch shaming and you had some experience with it yourself and I'm just wondering and I know throughout this process as members, Ohio Association of Food Banks or members of your coalition, I would send you articles that are like oh, a kid can't graduate because of this debt. And so if we are unable to get universality soon, we'll still have the issue of some people being required to pay even if they can't.
And then that leads to consequences like not being able to go to prom, not being able to play in the basketball game on Friday night, not being able to walk across the stage with their peers. So is there anything that can be done about that? Are you guys working on a lunch shaming bill or anything?
[00:18:28] Speaker F: Yeah, there are several states, I'm forgetting exactly which ones, but that have passed anti lunch shaming legislation that essentially you can't have practices like that, you usually still can go after the debt. What that looks like varies, but you can't have policies that would prevent from participating in sports or from walking at graduation, which I just can't believe that's happening. And I think it's important for the audience to remember this is to no fault of the student, they're accessing the meal that they need to think and they should not be penalized at all for this. So there's definitely anti lunch shaming legislation that we are going to look into and that could help with this. But really universality is what gets us to a point where that is no longer an issue. And I think the data is going to be really strong coming out of these other states when it comes to how many kids are eating together and eating and accessing these school meals that our nutrition providers put a lot of thought into.
And that's another thing I want to mention.
When it was universal, our school nutrition providers could focus on the content of the meal, they weren't focused on the school meal debt. We talked about in our last podcast, the Rising School Meal Debt. I mean, schools across our state have higher than ever school meal debt balances right now, which means when kids come back in the fall they're going to have to go after those families and try to get it paid off. And it's just something I don't think we should be dealing with in this state.
[00:19:59] Speaker C: You talked a lot about your coalition, so the Hunger Free Schools Coalition, right? And so you talked about like groups and organizations and people from different places that don't normally work on the same thing. Right, so we often don't work together because we are on food and you're on children. Right. So I'm just wondering you don't have to list them all, but do you have examples of people that were part of your coalition?
[00:20:23] Speaker F: Yeah, well, we love our association of Food Banks partner, of course, but we also have the American Academy of Pediatrics, the School nurses association. We are really excited about the school Nutrition Association of Ohio. They do a lot of federal sort of activity and it's really nice they were excited to get involved in this statewide campaign and I think this has motivated them to get more involved in changes that can be done at the state level. And we had a lot of local community gardens, so it's just a really varied group of organizations, including some small businesses who distribute produce for schools. So yeah, we had a lot of great partners.
[00:21:12] Speaker E: Along with those great partners came people from a lot of different areas of the state, which was for me was great to see. As somebody who used to work in the state House at one point, a lot of times you see a lot of the same faces. But we got to bring people from the rural areas, from different cities, from different just places that you don't normally think of when you think of Columbus. And it was great to see their faces and their voices made a huge impact, especially when you get to bring people from Appalachia who definitely are underrepresented in our policies to get them up here to have their voices heard was just great to see.
[00:21:50] Speaker D: So Catherine, you talked a lot about nutrition providers and the students coming to the State House to testify in front of their members of the State House. And I was just wondering, were there any stories or memories that stood out to both of you from their testimony that you could share?
[00:22:12] Speaker F: I think something that stood out to me was when we had a student from Chesapeake Union, which is sort of right on the border of West Virginia. His testimony, I mean, if you can look it up, which you can, it's public. I mean, it was just really meaningful. And he talked about, know, some of his friends are struggling with hunger in his school that later wanted to talk to him. It was like he became this little celebrity because they were so impressed with him standing up there and present. I don't think they hear from students enough, frankly. And it was on both sides of the aisle. So I was just really happy to see them listening.
[00:22:50] Speaker E: Yeah, and funny enough, my favorite moment was from that too, and getting to see a few legislators get a little teary eyed as he spoke. And I think if I remember right, one legislator even said like, I'm fighting tears right now because it was so impactful and amazing to see. But then I will also say we got to see some different side of some people that day too, because they really opened up and let us know that they really cared.
[00:23:23] Speaker D: Well, thanks so much for talking to us today. I was wondering if you could share where the listeners can find CDF ohio and both of your work.
[00:23:35] Speaker F: You can definitely visit our [email protected]
and you can actually even join the campaign. We have a newsletter that goes out not every week and not every month, but when big things are happening. So we have a lot of individuals who have signed up, so it's not just organizations that can join. So we'd love to have you just head over to that website, and then if you do want to join, you can go to the tab, join the campaign.
[00:24:00] Speaker E: You can find CDF [email protected]
. There you can navigate, see our blog post. Sign up for our newsletter. We have a weekly newsletter that tries to be really informal. It starts off with Dear friends. We just try to keep people informed on the goings on, because I know even for us advocates, it's a lot going on sometimes. So you can find all of us there.
[00:24:32] Speaker A: Hi, Tom. Thanks for chatting with me today a little bit about the amazing effort to make reduced price meals free in Ohio schools.
[00:24:42] Speaker B: Can you provide some context about Mad River local schools and kind of where you're coming from today?
[00:24:52] Speaker G: Yes, I think the big drawback after the Pandemic would be you're missing some of those kids now you're missing some of those students not receiving a lunch because they don't have the $0.40 or they don't have enough money on their account. So what we've done, we've had a little bit of money, and we've also had some people giving us money to make sure those kids eat.
So, yes, we are not one of the states that I think there's eight states that now have universal free meals post breakfast and lunch. Now we've done universal breakfast, I would say ten years now. So nobody pays for breakfast anywhere. Yeah. And then last year, even before the state of Ohio picked up the cost this year on the reduced, we covered everybody's reduced cost last year.
[00:25:47] Speaker A: Okay. Wow. As a school district.
[00:25:50] Speaker G: Correct. As a food service, yes.
[00:25:52] Speaker A: Wonderful.
[00:25:53] Speaker G: So I have close to probably a million dollars in the bank. So I talked to my superintendent. We wanted to spend that money that way instead of other things. So with the Pandemic's help in feeding those kids, we want to give something back. And that was one of the things that we wanted to do before the pandemic. We also looked at it. I think we had over the course of the year, we would have had 7000 reduced kids eating lunch. Well, what's the drawback from that? $2 a week or forty cents a day. So I talked to my superintendent, like I said right before that it was going to be in the fall of 2020 if the pandemic didn't happen, we were going to pick up the reduced cost anyways, because we figured it out. If we can pick up that reduced cost and have those kids eat every day on the kids who qualify for reduced and whether they ate or not, that would actually offset the money from the reimbursement that we'd pick up the cost I think it was $7,000 to pick up the reduced kids. Forty cents per day times 170 days, it was like $7,000.
But we'd get back in Reimbursement almost $24,000 if we fed all those kids. So it kind of offset that self to say, this is a good idea to do this.
[00:27:07] Speaker A: Yeah, absolutely. I would love to talk a little bit more about that. It sounds like your school district and the food Service department has really tried to innovate when it comes to serving your students. And I think I was looking at no Kid Hungry's website, and it said that you guys also do is it breakfast in classroom or something like yes.
[00:27:32] Speaker G: With Tom Ben, he has really helped us with the Children's Hunger Alliance. Him bringing an old principal has gone in and talked to the principals for me to say, listen, if we can capture more of those kids because it was a traditional, you have to walk down the hallway, go through the line, eat in the cafeteria. So we really established that to where and the teachers really helped us extraordinarily to say, listen, we'll accept the cost, we'll accept the spills, we'll accept that. But at the same time, they can be teaching those kids. And I work at one of our elementary schools, and that's when the teachers say, come in and do your morning work. Come in and do your morning work. Get breakfast, do your morning. So they're getting things done while they're eating breakfast, instead of trying to round up those kids in the cafeteria, bringing them down, going to the bathroom, not making it to class. So that was one of the things that really drove us to make sure that we did that. The biggest school that we had to do was the seven and eight building. We were only feeding 70 kids a day. So then Tom came out and talked to us from the Children's Hunger Alliance, and he talked to the principal, and Superintendent Chad Wynn was on board to say, we really need to get this breakfast in the classroom. So we jumped all the way up to 200 kids a day from 70, because the way the buses were and the way the cafeteria is set up is the bus is down the hallway, and also the car riders, where the cafeteria is on the other side of the school. So we weren't getting those kids, which was our great concern. So now that my superintendent went there, I think last year sometime, and he said that he didn't want the kids in the hallway, and they go right to the classroom. Teachers are happy with it, so it shows that it works. The breakfast in the classroom really works because they can get some teaching done at the same time. They can take attendance, they could take at the elementaries. They can take a lunch count.
So we weren't even reaching out of the 78 building out of. 500 and almost 600 kids. We weren't even reaching 10%.
We weren't even a little over 10%. So 70 kids. So now we're feeding over 200.
[00:29:50] Speaker A: Wow. That's a huge increase. And it sounds like, what a simple thing to kind of break down some barriers for those kids.
And it seems like the thing that is great for the kids, especially the kids that are most vulnerable, is the thing that's best for everyone. And you said that the teachers are also really happy about that and we're able to take on that. So that's awesome. You are part of a team that provides fresh and nutritious meals to your students each day. I was just wondering if you could kind of make the case for why nutrition providers and food service providers are great advocates for free school meals based on their experience day to day with.
[00:30:38] Speaker G: Us being we used to be in a high poverty area, but now with low unemployment but we've seen inflation go through the roof. So we've seen these parents struggle. In terms of buying milk or fresh fruit, my biggest, and I get the angry at the most, is you can buy a bag of chips for one dollars 50, but a bag of apples costs $4.
I try to make sure we have enough fresh fruit as we can because it's so expensive and some of these kids don't get that every day. Last year, we can put so much money aside for the Department of Defense fresh Fruit and vegetable program. So last year at the high school, they offered corn on the cob. So we did all that. You and I take that for advantage, right? So these kids says, well, I never had corn on the cob this way. I've never had it with butter before. So those are some of the things that I take with me to say, you know what, we need to be doing these things. It's a little more time consuming on my part in terms of peeling the husk off and cooking it because it takes a little longer. But I think the kids really enjoyed that. And another aspect of it is during the summer, when it's not called a summer school, it's called rise. But we served watermelon this year, they went crazy over watermelon. So it's just some of those things, those little things, strawberries, watermelon, corn of the cob, peaches, pears, some of those things that some of those kids don't experience that stuff. Yeah, but especially at the high school in terms of where I concentrate a lot of that on to try to get that fresh fruits because they're busy after school activities, sports, band, other clubs. So we also offer the after school snacks, too, for them, too, just to make sure they're covered on that. Just to make sure they get a meal that day.
[00:32:42] Speaker A: Yeah, absolutely. That's a great answer. And I think you drove home the point that not only do you have to have food in your stomach. You also have to have healthy food in your stomach and things that help you focus and make sure that you're full.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your experience with kids who are food insecure and their ability, or lack thereof, to learn, focus and retain information. I know that you're not always in the classroom with the kids after they've had a meal or haven't had a meal, but I'm wondering if you have any experience there and can talk a little bit about that.
[00:33:27] Speaker G: I'll go back to my elementary that I work at, especially over the weekend. It also depends on the time of the month, whether the money ran out for that month for food, as you know, and as I know. And I have a daughter, so I kind of help her. She goes to UC, so I kind of help her with her sometimes. Her papers. So she wanted to do a paper on the disparity in terms of women, that they only earned $0.78 on the dollar compared to men.
And then I read something not too long ago that 80% of the single family households are run by women. So how can they survive if you're a single mother and making less than the men? And that's my concern there is we have those people in this school district that we know.
It's not up to me whether you want to take a job or not, or whether you're going to sit at home.
It's not the kids fault. So I try to make sure that those kids have something to eat. I'm not going to criticize any parenting issue, so I want to make sure those kids feel safe at school, which is number one. And we've all seen with the mental aspect of these kids going through the pandemic, but I also want to make sure that they're not so worried about the cost of the meal. So we've probably picked up over the course of last year, $10,000 just to let those kids eat, just to make sure it's not a big deal. We have the money in the count. Like I said before, I have a really good boss superintendent that is an advocate for that.
His kids went here. He's got twin daughters, so it shows that he cares about the district. He's been here almost ten years.
That's a long time for a superintendent, so he cares about the district. So we're both on the same page there, which is our concern to making sure these kids eat. We've had a couple of issues with a couple of teachers, and he's saying, no, we need to make sure these kids get fed. And he's a big advocate for that, and I think that really helps us in the end. I've talked to other food service directors, and that's the big drawback there is you don't have support from the superintendent or the treasurer or the principal. Our school board is really good about that too. At the same time to say we need to make sure these kids get fed. So I think that buy in from everybody here in the school district, from the superintendent all the way down to a classroom aid to make sure these kids eat.
[00:36:07] Speaker A: That's wonderful. Yeah. It sounds like you all are part of a great team that has a similar vision and mission of making sure that our kids are eating regardless on their income or their status.
[00:36:22] Speaker G: Correct.
[00:36:23] Speaker A: I'm interested to hear your thoughts on this. We're really happy and thrilled to see that reduced price meals are going to be free now because of the state's investment in the budget. But it still means that there are categories of kids. So for example, there's the kids that can pay and then there's the kids that get the free meal or get the reduced price meal. I wanted to see what your thoughts are on that and why that could be so harmful for kids and continue that stigma of getting free meals. It might not be as much of an issue in your district just with your commitment to that, but I'm interested to hear your thoughts.
[00:37:09] Speaker G: Well, the School Nutrition Association has been advocating for the reduced to go away in just two categories, full paid and free.
The other thing we've also advocated for was the reduction in the CEP, which is once your kids qualify under CEP, which is every kid gets free breakfast and free lunch.
The percentage now and it's based on Direct certified, which means that anybody that qualifies for benefits in the state of Ohio, whether Medicaid or Snap or OWF, automatically gets those meals free. But like I said, we already do breakfast for free, so it doesn't really matter on that. But we've always advocated for that to make sure that reduce kids. And we've been saying that for years because the $2 a week times 40 weeks we're in school.
And then the other thing we've also done was with the point of sale system is we don't charge a fee for parents to put money on the account. We don't charge a minimum. We don't want to charge the fee because we want to make sure it's easier for them. We still accept cash and checks, but we don't charge a fee. We pick up the fee. So the fee might be $10,000 a year, but we want to make sure those kids eat at the same time. And I'll tell a story from last year. We had this girl at the high school and she was working as a waitress and she was paying her school meals and her tips. So someone told me that and I said, no, we're not going to do that. We're not going to accept her money. We'll just pick up the cost and then Jerusalem write it off at the end of the year. She's very happy, very excited about that. She didn't have to use her tips now for her own meal.
Like I said, I'm not judging anybody on parenting. We don't know that situation. So we picked up her Cost last year. It's like, no, you don't need to be using your tips from your job to enjoy yourself. You're 1817 enjoy your tips.
[00:39:21] Speaker A: Right? Exactly. I think those stories kind of capture it. I think folks who have never been in that situation would never expect that a 17 year old would have to use her tip money to make sure that she's eating at school.
But it happens.
[00:39:42] Speaker G: Oh, yeah, it happens.
[00:39:44] Speaker A: Yeah. There are plenty of other stories in which that's the case or something similar, and it's a shame, and we need to be doing something about it. And I'm glad to hear that.
[00:39:55] Speaker G: It is a shame.
And that's what I said before. When you gallon of milk is $3, but you can buy a two liter pop for a dollar 50, there's something wrong there.
Yes, you could qualify for Wick or Head Start, but still, what about all those other kids that are falling between the cracks and not drinking milk? What does that do later on in life? I mean, I look at it that way as the long road. What happens then?
[00:40:22] Speaker A: You can't reach your potential without food in your stomach.
[00:40:27] Speaker G: Correct.
[00:40:29] Speaker A: Exactly.
It's a required part of making sure that you can learn.
[00:40:35] Speaker G: Everybody should have the right they have the right to be fed and not go hungry. With this country, the richest one in the world or one of the richest ones that we shouldn't have, these people go hungry. It's the same thing with Social Security. The rents have gone through the roof, and some of these senior citizens can't afford the rent or they can't afford a pill. I mean, come on.
[00:41:00] Speaker A: Right?
[00:41:01] Speaker G: So I'm doing my part to feed these kids.
[00:41:04] Speaker A: Yeah, thank you for that.
I know that COVID, of course, turned the world upside down, to say the least, but it also showed us how we can significantly alleviate and address hunger and poverty when the resources necessary are available and accessible. You talked a little bit about how you are covering the cost for reduced price breakfast, and you kind of did that around the Pandemic, but we're planning on doing that anyway.
I was wondering, how did COVID shift your school meal programs and what lessons did you learn from the pandemic era programs?
[00:41:51] Speaker G: Well, luckily the federal government gave us that meal bags to where we can still feed the kids during the Pandemic, which we did during that 2020 and then summer of 2020 and then came back in that fall. We also prepared meal bags for those kids who did not feel safe coming back to school. They were online, so we still wanted to make sure that our online kids here in Mad River were still having access to meals because we wanted to make sure and we were probably doing 100 and 150, even feeding the kids who came to school. So we were trying to capture those kids, too. So it's just a matter of trying to change that. And now with the pandemic, we see that with the inflation prices going through the roof, in terms of food, in terms of gas, in terms of housing, there's not a lot of money left for food. We want to step away from those barriers. We want to break them down. We want to make sure those kids come to school every day. What if somebody doesn't want to come to school because they don't have lunch money? Well, why are we here then? We want to make sure those kids get fed. But yes, there was a little bit of a change in terms of the pandemic. I wish they would have gone back to guaranteed those kids free meals.
[00:43:16] Speaker A: Right? Absolutely. And I think you make a really good point when you are presented with two different choices, and one is significantly cheaper, although it doesn't have the same nutritional value, if you're in a pinch and you can't afford $4 bag of apples, you're going to go with the cheaper option. Correct.
So I appreciate your point there, and I do wish that we had some political will after the pandemic to look at, okay, we did this for three years.
This was actually very beneficial for kids, the district, their learning outcomes, all that sort of thing, and we should really consider making this permanent or at least having a stepping stone to making that permanent.
[00:44:14] Speaker G: Correct.
[00:44:17] Speaker A: So I was wondering again, we've mentioned this kind of briefly, that the new provision in the state budget will make reduced price meals free. I was wondering how that provision will impact your food service department and your students. And then could you share some stories to illustrate what the impact might be of that?
[00:44:40] Speaker G: Well, I think it's a start to go to universal free meals, to making sure these kids qualify. My thought is, and what we're going to start to do is to make sure that people who qualify for reduced are making sure that we're waiving the day it's being picked up by the state. So we got to make sure that might then qualify some more people. They might be enticed to fill out the free reduced launch application. So they might go, okay, well, we reduced the cost. We're so close to reduced the last time. Let's see if we qualify this time. Or somebody might say, hey, we reduced last year. We don't have to pick up the $2 anymore. We can spend that $2 somewhere else. Whether it be nutritional food, whether it be school supplies, whether it be clothes, I think that just frees that money up there. You could have three kids here, and you're looking at $6 a week. You're looking at over 40 weeks is $240. So maybe that would help somebody in the end not worry about things, not worry about where that money is coming from or, hey, we could go out and have pizza tonight as a family, and I'm not working tonight, and we can go out and do some of those things. So hopefully that would free that up, not just in terms of school, but also in the family aspect of it. Maybe that means that we can buy new shoes this time instead of wearing your brother's handmedowns, or it's just all those factors into that which could be a life saving for some families.
[00:46:32] Speaker A: I really appreciate your point about what families could do with that extra money if they're not paying for school meals.
We talked about that a lot in terms of the child tax credit, too.
A lot of families could use that monthly amount to pay for those shoes that the kids always seem to be growing out of or new school wardrobe or something like that, really helps benefit the child, obviously, and the family.
Yes, I know the campaign is not done and many organizations are invested in making free school meals in Ohio a reality, whether through the federal level or on the state level. I was wondering, how do you stay inspired and motivated every day to advocate on behalf of the kids in your community in addition to feeding them?
[00:47:38] Speaker G: I don't know.
I've always been an advocate for the kids. I don't know if it was how I was raised or saw that there was not a lot of money in my household. So I see that now. So I took that with me to say, you grew up like that, you paid for your education, you paid for your college education by yourself.
Maybe that is my motivation.
I read a lot of news, I read a lot of other articles, and I see that happening and going, why does that occur?
But I'm also, at the same time, I'm encouraged by some of these states picking up the cost of the universal meals to where we can feed those kids. And they finally see that, yeah, these kids need to be fed. They need to be fed, but also they need to feel secure in that building. Just trying to make a better life for them, which is what I try to do, because, like I said, I've seen it growing up.
Just to see the smile on some kids'faces, whether we served watermelon or peach that day or they got do. Like I said before, the Department of Defense has this on Wednesdays, we get our produce delivery from the government. So it's part of our reimbursement for commodity program. So we can put some of our commodity dollars instead of buying beef, we can put that into fresh fruits and vegetables. So Wednesdays we get 26 flats of strawberries, and the kids get fresh strawberries for lunch on Thursdays. And fridays. So we cut the tops off. Takes a lot of time, but when you see those kids get so excited for strawberries or watermelon we had some money left this year at the end of June in produce. And what we did was we started I had to use it or it's gone. So what we did was we bought some watermelons. So we gave some of the people some watermelons and they were happy to have that. So I think that's my motivation there. Just make sure those kids get fed.
Maybe it's a better day for somebody. Maybe somebody's having a bad day and gave them some watermelon or gave them some strawberries, or you gave them a free muffin or a free bag of chips that day. Or just said hi to that child that day. Or a high five, or tell their mom, hey, look what happened today. So those are some of the things that keeps me motivated to making sure that I'm going to provide the best that I can. I'm going to do that every day that I can to provide those meals to those kids. Because, like I said, we're not in a fluid area before 60% would qualify for free meals. It's not a big area. We have 3600 students and then we feed a Catholic school and then Head Start and then also preschool.
I think that's the biggest thing right there is to keep me motivated. Whether I'm feeding a preschool child or feeding a twelveTH grader, they're still kids.
Whether you're five or 18, I think you have to have some joy in life, right? So at the end of the day, I can just say, we did what we needed to do today. We fed those kids. Yes, there's a lot of other things going on in this world, but let me have my own world right here real quick and go on to the next day.
[00:51:21] Speaker A: Yeah, you can't discount connection and a great meal. Yes, that is great. What a great way to end. I want to thank you so much, Tom, for talking to me a little bit, and thank you for the work that you do every day to make sure that kids in your community are fed. I really appreciate it.
[00:51:44] Speaker G: Thank you.
[00:51:53] Speaker B: I want to extend a huge thank you to Catherine, Matthew and Tom for speaking with us about what this means and how we can get involved. You can join the Hunger Free Schools Ohio campaign by clicking on the link in the Show Notes. Thanks for listening and we'll talk to you soon.