Speaker 1 00:00:17 Hi all. Welcome back to Just a Bite. This week I talked to Katherine Hunger of Children's Defense Fund, Ohio, about the Hunger-Free School's campaign that she has been leading the charge on. We talk about why school meals are so vital to child development and wellbeing and what Ohio can do about it. Take a listen.
Speaker 2 00:00:50 Hi, Catherine. Thanks so much for joining me on the podcast today and for talking about such an important campaign. Um, could you introduce yourself and give the listeners some background about how you got involved in this work?
Speaker 3 00:01:06 Yeah, and hi Sarah. It's so nice to be here. I really, um, appreciate this podcast and all you do to shed light on these important issues. Um, I'm Catherine Unger. I'm a senior policy associate for the Children's Defense Fund of Ohio, and we are also leading the Hunger Free School's Ohio campaign, which is why I'm here today. Uh, our mission is to ensure that all students in Ohio have access to a school meal. Um, so I'm excited to talk more about what the campaign looks like and where we are and where we were and all things school meals with you today.
Speaker 2 00:01:47 Perfect. That's great. Um, I know the Association of the Proud Campaign and Coalition, um, member along with some of our food banks, um, and a bunch of different organizations as well. What has the coalition been advocating for during this campaign? Could you kinda walk us through like what exactly Hunger Free Schools would mean?
Speaker 3 00:02:10 Yeah, definitely, and I think for those who don't know that might be listening, um, during the pandemic, um, we had some waivers from the federal government that allowed all of our schools to provide school meals at no cost to, to all kids. Um, so no matter what a student would have access to a school meal last school year, there are some states that, um, pass legislation to either permanently or for this school year, expand that program so that students continue to have school meals, um, at no cost for the school year. Unfortunately, Ohio was not one of them. So what we saw was we reverted back to, uh, a paid school meal model, um, which meant less kids were able to access school meals. We see rising amounts of school meal debt, nutrition providers, um, you know, who we've spoken to feel conflicted between, you know, their main goal, which is serving kids and being a nutrition providers and for the students, and then also having to be debt collectors and, and balancing their, their budgets.
Speaker 3 00:03:16 Um, and so this campaign came together because we, we really saw what was possible. We sort of had a pilot project, if you will, just given the pandemic and the federal labors of what it would look like to have school meals, um, at no cost for all kids, and the benefits really of what that meant. Um, and so we came together to try to, you know, fight for the continuation of that program and to see and make sure that all kids in Ohio have access to school meals. Uh, there's tremendous benefits when we think about school breakfast and school lunch associated with academic success, but also behavioral and mental health and physical health outcomes for our kids. So it's really an investment in, in Ohio's future.
Speaker 2 00:04:02 Yeah, absolutely. Why don't we get a little bit more in depth about that, um, about what free schools would mean for, um, children's wellbeing and future?
Speaker 3 00:04:14 Yeah, so, um, you know, like I said, school meals are associated with a lot of beneficial outcomes like, um, student academic success, math scores, reading scores, uh, school attendance, graduation rates, um, you know, all the things we sort of look for as an, a smart investment in making sure kids are academically prepared. But I think what is really critical about the school meals and making sure it's universal that all kids have access is it eliminates, uh, categories of kids in the lunchroom. You know, I don't think we need to be labeling students as free or reduced or on the paid model because that just creates these categories of kids when they go in to what should be a communal, uh, space to be with peers. And when you eat, you know, you think of this as like a community, you know, get together event. So we, we really, what we saw last year is that we saw an increase in kids who would qualify for the federal reimbursement at the free and reduced price rate, but because the stigma was removed and all kids had access, we saw an uptick in school meal access by those kids.
Speaker 3 00:05:22 And then also kids who may, uh, whose families may be just outside of the, um, the level that it, you know, is required to qualify for free or reduced price meals. So right now that threshold is, um, 185% of the federal poverty level for you to qualify for free or reduced price meals. Uh, I was just speaking with a nutrition provider, um, in the southeastern part of our state, and he said it was really challenging because this year in particular, he had to turn, you know, families who applied for free or produced price meals were just hundred a hun, you know, a couple hundred dollars outside the limit. So they're still very much struggling and, uh, but yet don't qualify for any, uh, money towards their kids' school meal. So, you know, we're talking, uh, you know, $5, four 50. It does vary, um, a day for this family.
Speaker 3 00:06:17 Um, you know, who is really struggling to, um, to make ends meet. Um, the pandemic is, you know, the, the r the outfall of the pandemic is not over. We're still very much a part of it. And so it w it would just be tremendously beneficial to a lot of those families. I think also it's important that I note, you know, one in six and as many as one in four kids we estimate in Ohio, uh, you know, lives in a family that faces food insecurity of some sort, and one in three of those kids, their family is probably right outside of that threshold to get a reduced price meals.
Speaker 2 00:06:54 Yeah, that is, that's a lot. I mean, yeah, when you really put it into those terms. Um, yeah, I know that, um, for the families that we're receiving free meals, um, or, um, reduced price meals, they also have to fill out paperwork to confirm that they're eligible before the pandemic. Um, so it also kinda reduces some of that, those additional steps that would be needed, um, on the family's behalf as well as the, the school's behalf as well. Right?
Speaker 3 00:07:32 Yeah, yeah, I mean, the administrative burden, um, you know, I talked a little about, a little bit in the beginning about some of the nutrition providers who are trying to, you know, be sort of debt collectors at the same time trying, you know, their main priority is feeding kids. There's a big administrative burden when we look at, you know, having these different, um, categories and, uh, models of kids. I will say, I think, um, you know, our coalition is asking for the state to supplement, uh, what we get from the federal government to ensure all kids have access. And we would very much anticipate that that state share of dollars will go down pretty significantly next year. So Ohio was accepted into a U S D A demonstration project where, um, kids who are on Medicaid will direct be directly certified for free or reduced priced meals. Um, and so that should increase our identified student percentage and allow some of our schools who may have been at the threshold of being able to apply for some federal program, um, called Community Eligibility Provision or Provision two that allows them to serve, uh, school meals to all, to all students. So we will see, I think some of the administrative burden lessened, you know, that you were talking about next year, but we'll still, uh, still have that gap. And so it's really important that we make this a universal program.
Speaker 2 00:08:57 What is the ask for the state to do? I know you had mentioned that we were asking for the state to kinda fill in, you know, whatever the federal government is providing for school meals, and then we, the state of Ohio kind of backfill that. Um, I was wondering, you know, like what, what is the main call?
Speaker 3 00:09:17 And I think also for the people listening, you know, we do get a lot of money from the federal government for the National School Lunch program. So if a kid, or if a student does qualify for free or reduced price meals, so either they can directly be certified if they're on SNAP or, um, or they could, like you said, their parents fill out an application and if they meet that threshold of being under 105% of the, uh, federal poverty level, they would get either a reduced or a free meal. Uh, and based on that category, the federal government will reimburse for those individual students. They actually also provide a small reimbursement when a student who is, you know, considered paid accesses a meal. But what we would be asking is for our state to cover the full amount of those who, you know, so if you're un reduced, the state would cover so that you really are actually getting a free meal.
Speaker 3 00:10:10 You're not paying the 40 cents, 50 cents, and then that they're also paying for, you know, those kids who may be in the paid category. Again, that's gonna encompass a lot of kids who are sort of right outside that one 85% threshold, um, you know, so that their meals are free and that the nutrition provider and our districts are not having to, you know, pick up that tab, but it's really the state supplementing. So we do, you know, we did do an analysis. We would be looking at, if we were doing it this year around 250 to 300 million, uh, to cover free breakfast and free lunch for all students in Ohio. Um, and as I mentioned next year with the Medicaid direct certification program, we're gonna see a huge, uh, leap in the federal reimbursement. And so we anticipate that number to go drastically, um, or dramatically down to, you know, around a hundred million, 150 million. We don't think there's any better investment in, in kids than making sure they're not hungry, especially when we think about a full day of academic learning. Um, and so we think this is worthwhile, especially considering sort of our economic state this year, um, and what our G RF looks like.
Speaker 2 00:11:22 I also wanted to talk a little bit, I know you had mentioned it earlier, but um, a little bit about like lunch shaming. Um, I know you had mentioned, you know, making sure that all kids have free meals kind alleviate some of those issues. Um, and I I've even heard stories of, you know, some kids having to go to a separate table if they, if they are, um, have lunch or, um, unfortunately getting a different meal than the other kids. Um, I was wondering if you could could talk a little bit more about that.
Speaker 3 00:11:55 Yeah, and through this work, you know, we, you know, we have been really involved with talking to districts and superintendents and principals and then really importantly cafeteria workers and nutrition providers in, um, in these schools. And it is very patchwork across Ohio. Districts have, you know, they can decide how they wanna handle school meal debt, but what I will say is, I've talked to a number of schools where this is common practice and it still is really painful for the provider, but if a student, uh, as young as kindergarten reaches a certain threshold of debt, and that can vary across districts, I've heard as low as, you know, three meals. So you know about $10, $15 of school meal debt. Um, so the kindergartner gets in line and they get the hot meal and then they go down to the point of sale system, which is at the end by design.
Speaker 3 00:12:51 Uh, and if it rings up that they've reached that threshold of debt as determined by the district, you know, some districts will take that meal and throw it in the trash and they're given a, you know, a paper bag with either a peanut butter or cheese sandwich, uh, does not have the nutritional density or quality of the school meal. And then I think on top of that, it's really painful to imagine a kindergartner, uh, the shame that they might feel the embarrassment. And, um, you know, I mentioned, I just had a conversation, um, with a nutrition provider in, um, Southeastern Ohio, and he said, you know, what he would see after a situation like that is sometimes the kid just won't come to the lunchroom. And so then that just means they're not gonna access meals because they don't know what's on their account, but they don't wanna face what they just did.
Speaker 3 00:13:44 So lunch shaming is a really big issue and I think it pulls on the heartstrings of everyone as it should. And if we did h make school meals universal, that wouldn't, you know, that's not, that's not a problem anymore. We don't have school meal debt like we do currently. Um, that is something some states have done though. They have passed anti lunch shaming legislation and it's definitely something on our radar at the very minimum that our state needs to be thinking about, where we don't have any of that public shaming sort of no matter what, uh, just because of what that does, you know, to the student. And oftentimes to the nutrition provider, this is not something that they like to do. Um, it just puts people in a really hard situation. And like I said, this is not a one-off, this is happening, um, in various districts. There are districts, you know, who have halted or put a pause on their policy for the school year knowing many people are struggling. And so what they are doing is, you know, they're not denying a meal, but their school meal debt, you know, continues to rise, rise, rise. So we're in a really precarious situation where we need, we really need a solution and we think universal meals is it,
Speaker 2 00:14:55 And what a perfect time after we have seen how well it worked, um, right in the previous years. Well, thank you so much, Catherine. I appreciate you talking a little bit about it. Um, I'm sure so many of our listeners are interested to know, um, more and how they can join or how their organizations can join. So how can the listeners fall a Hunger Free School Ohio campaign and how can the listeners get involved?
Speaker 3 00:15:26 We would love to have you, um, you can visit, we have a website that is tr you know, up to date and we continue to track, you know, media as it comes out and send updates. But our website is Hunger Free schools oh.org, and there is a tab on the website that says Join the campaign with a Google form, uh, you know, asking specific question, you know, how involved do you wanna be? Can we put your logo on the website? And if you're an individual, you know, we would include you in communications too. So please feel free to join if this is something you're interested in. Uh, we have 45 plus organizations so far, and it continues to grow as we, you know, talk to more and more organizations and businesses across the state. We also C D F Ohio, and I think these links will be available, uh, through the podcast. So thank you so much. Um, we also created a white paper that we released a couple of weeks ago that, um, talks really about more the research side of this and the benefits of school meals, and then also does a little bit of the snapshot into looking at some of our districts and some, you know, some of the challenges they're facing.
Speaker 2 00:16:34 Thank you so much, Catherine. Opportunity,
Speaker 3 00:16:42 You, Sarah, and thank you to the Ohio Association of Food.
Speaker 1 00:16:53 I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Catherine. To end the podcast today, I wanted to leave us with a quote from the press conference that the Hunger Free School's Ohio campaign did earlier this year. Alexander local school district special programs coordinator, Lindy Douglas, said quote, especially here in rural Appalachia, where our kids already struggle to have a level playing field in so many ways, our kids can't afford to have our state leaders fail to act on this urgent issue. Ohio lawmakers must act now to make sure every child is fed. Thanks for listening and we'll talk to you soon.