In April, the Ohio Department of Education, or ODE, announced all students attending Ohio public schools will receive free meals throughout the 2021-22 school year.
Brigette Hires, director of the Office of Nutrition for ODE, said the program is a continuation of the Seamless Summer Option, which provides free lunches to grade school students throughout summer break. The Seamless Summer Option is normally available in areas where at least 50% of children qualify for free and reduced meals, she said.
“What has happened is the U.S. Department of Agriculture has realized that this school year, 21-22, is still unfortunately impacted by COVID, and in an attempt to be able to have schools so that they can put COVID procedures in place and have less administrative burden … what they decided was to allow that Seamless Summer Option to go ahead and run during the school year,” Hires said.
Additionally, Hires emphasized the program extension disregards poverty levels. It is available to each and every student, even if they would not normally qualify for free and reduced meals.
Timarie Francis, food services director for Athens City Schools, said every student is receiving the same benefit, helping to remove any stigma surrounding receiving free and reduced lunches. Currently, it is unclear how many families will take advantage of the program, due to students attending only two days of school thus far, she said. According to a previous Post report, Athens City Schools were temporarily shut down due to COVID-19 related issues.
Statewide responses have been overwhelmingly positive, Hires said. Parents have given positive feedback because the program helps remove the burden of packing lunches and worrying whether there is enough money on their child’s lunch account.
Athens City Councilman Ben Ziff, D-At Large, fully supports the program and finds it “outrageous” for students or families to ever need to worry about affording school lunches, he said. Ziff also hopes the program will continue past the COVID-19 pandemic, as he thinks student learning is significantly affected by food insecurity.
As director of food services, one of the biggest challenges Francis faces is the pervasive idea that school lunches are unhealthy. That line of thinking is inaccurate, she said, as public schools are required to provide certain levels of nutrition in each and every meal.
Other requirements schools must follow include reporting what time meals will be served and where students will be eating, Hires said. Although there are multiple requirements to be followed, schools will receive reimbursement for any meals served.
Initially, each school will hire workers, order meal supplies and prepare and serve meals using their own budget. At meal times, each school will record how many students were served and report the final count to ODE, Hires said. Once this is reported, each school will be reimbursed for the costs incurred buying, preparing and serving meals.
Ziff and Francis expressed hopes for the program to continue in the future. However, Hires said there is no guarantee it will.
“We really, really want to encourage families to take advantage of this program,” Hires said. “There's no guarantee that it's going to continue for 22-23 or beyond. We may very well go back to the usual traditional model of application collection.”