Free school lunch enrollment declines slightly in Ohio, first drop in 6 years


COLUMBUS — The number of lower-income school children in Ohio receiving free or reduced-price lunches has decreased for the first time in six years, according to statistics from the state education department.

The numbers from the Ohio Department of Education showed that nearly 820,000 youngsters get subsidized meals this school year. That's 44.4 percent — a slight decline from the 45.3 percent enrolled in the program last year.

“You always want to see the numbers go down because it means things are getting better — at least we hope so,” Philip E. Cole, executive director of the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, told The Columbus Dispatch for a story today. “The thing to do now is watch next year and see if this is a trend, and hopefully it is.”

The school lunch program is funded by the federal government. It serves students considered to be economically disadvantaged based on their family income.

Enrollment also determines levels of state and federal aid for disadvantaged students. Gov. John Kasich this week proposed using the criteria for free and reduced-price lunches as a basis to offer tax-funded vouchers for private-school tuition to students statewide.

The number of Ohio youngsters in the lunch program has increased by nearly 50 percent in the past decade as poverty has grown in the state. Much of the increase has been seen in suburban districts, where middle-class families have lost jobs or seen their earnings decline.

“Poverty has moved out to these ring suburbs, which have been very solidly middle-income,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.

“We're looking at nearly 45 percent of Ohio's students in public and private schools (enrolled in the school-lunch program),” she said. “That means their families are struggling every day to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.”

To qualify for free school lunches, students’ households must have incomes less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, making the threshold nearly $30,000 a year for a family of four.

Reduced-price meals are available to children in families earning up to 185 percent of the poverty level. That's $42,600 a year for a family of four.