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No 'Ice Cream Fridays' for Ohio kids who owe lunch debt

A southwestern Ohio school says it does not deprive children of school lunches, but prohibits students with lunch debt from buying a la carte items.
No 'Ice Cream Fridays' for Ohio kids who owe lunch debt
Posted at 8:50 AM, Sep 25, 2023

Children with a negative school lunch balance cannot participate in an Ohio school's Ice Cream Fridays, prompting criticism on social media. 

Donovan Elementary School in Lebanon, Ohio, said a student must have money on their account to purchase an ice cream, and students wouldn't be allowed to buy ice cream for a friend. 

The school later apologized for its Facebook post, but did not retract the policy.

"We understand this post lacked empathy. We are sorry for the way the message was communicated," Donovan Elementary School's Facebook page said. "The wording lacked empathy and sensitivity for students who have low or negative meal account balances. We work very hard to provide school lunches to students by removing barriers and eliminating the stigma associated with the lunch assistance program. This post inadvertently sent the message that we would embarrass students or turn them away for an issue outside their control."

SEE MORE: Should you pack snacks with children's school lunches?

But after apologizing for the post, the school then defended its decision. 

"The post was intended to communicate to Donovan parents how several district-wide rules apply to a la carte items purchased in the cafeteria," the post read. "These rules are not new. Students who have a negative balance on their account are not turned away; they are provided a meal. Students are not allowed to purchase a la carte items if they have a negative balance in their meal account. Ice cream is an a la carte item. Therefore, if students have a negative balance on their meal account, they are not allowed to purchase ice cream."

The Education Data Initiative estimates that 30.4 million students can’t afford their school meals. It also estimates that there is $262 million in school lunch debt owed nationwide. 

There is a growing trend of states providing school lunches for all students. Massachusetts, New Mexico, Minnesota and Illinois all approved bills earlier this year to make school lunches free for all students. California, Colorado and Maine also have laws on the books to offer free meals to students. 

A number of other states have proposed similar provisions, but most still only provide free or reduced-cost lunch based on federal guidelines. 

SEE MORE: Could new poverty data renew push for expanding the child tax credit?

The federal free and reduced-cost lunch program is based on family income. For children to qualify for a free school lunch, their family must earn less than 130% of the federal poverty level. The family must earn less than 185% of the federal poverty level for a reduced-cost meal. 

In 2023-24, the cutoff for free school lunches for a household of four is $39,000. For reduced-cost lunches, the cutoff for a household of four is $55,500. 

There have been efforts to make free school meals universal throughout the U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, proposed legislation to make school meals free for everyone nationwide. In addition to free meals during the school year, children would also be able to access free meals during the summer.

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