Amidst rising school lunch debt, support remains for CPS families


Kimaya Mundhe

Cafeteria staff member, Latricia Rice restocks snacks in between lunches. This year, the cafeteria is continuing to experience staff shortages. “Last year we fed 1100 plus [students] almost every day, and we were short employees,” Norris said. “I did the cooking and I also worked on the main serving line too… I think most of the schools are short, at least one or two employees.”

By Kimaya Mundhe, Walnut Hills High School

Between Oct. 3, 2022, and Jan. 13. 2023, the nine CPS schools that are no longer providing free lunches to all students have accrued $4,996.92 in debt. WHHS contributed $595.30 to the district’s total debt.

Access to free school lunches ended at the start of the school year after Congress did not renew the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, providing universal free breakfasts and lunches to students, regardless of family income. The bill–intended to be temporary–was extended multiple times, allowing the free lunch program to last through the end of last summer.

“For a lot of kids, sometimes the food they get at school is [all] the food that they get,” assistant principal Kathy Restle said. “I was disappointed that we didn’t continue [with universal free lunch]. It just seemed like that was a step in the right direction to ensure that students have proper nutrition and that’s something that they don’t have to worry about… it’s so important for learning, and their alertness in each class and their health.”

Students are encouraged to apply for meal and educational benefits, as submitting an application helps to maintain funding for student programs and services. It also provides student discounts on state educational fees, internet access and college application fees.

“We know there are kids out there who probably do need assistance, but whose parents haven’t taken time to fill out the application or have stigma around [asking for] the assistance that they need,” Restle said.

Application forms should be returned to the student’s school or delivered to CPS Student Dining Services Dept., 2315 Iowa Ave., 2nd Floor, Cincinnati, OH 45206. Federal regulations mandate that families pay for school lunches until a current application is submitted and approved.

“I’m hoping that as the government takes a look at all of this, and during discussions about it, that they’ll go back to the universal [free] lunch because we had so many kids eating and now… the max we’ve fed is maybe 555 [students],” Lisa Norris, lunchroom manager, said.

This number is down almost 50% from last school year when lunchroom staff distributed over 1100 lunches daily.

“I think that food insecurity with kids isn’t always told to us by kids, and there are probably many kids around the school who aren’t eating, but they just don’t know what to do, or what to say or are embarrassed about it,” Regan Kitzmiller, school social worker, said. “I think it’s really important that we’ve got meals available for them.”

Twenty percent of WHHS’ students are economically disadvantaged, the lowest rate in the CPS district. Despite this, Norris worries there are students who should receive free lunches but do not qualify for the reduced-price lunch program or have not applied.

“A lot of kids are owing money… between the three of us who are at registers, right now we’re averaging probably at least 20 kids every day with no money,” Norris said. “But they do eat though, they just still owe the money.”

Lunch debt has increased by about 10% this school year as compared to the 2019-2020 school year. (Used with permission from Tara Oldendick/ CPS Student Dining Services)

Lunch costs $2.00 at secondary schools and $1.75 at elementary schools. Breakfast has remained free for all students, even at schools that are not considered “Community Eligible.”

“The breakfast counts are going higher because more kids realize that breakfast is free for everyone and they don’t have to pay. I mean they’re coming in to get something at least at breakfast time, and hopefully at lunch, too,” Norris said.

Free meal options are available for CPS students and families at local food pantries. Queen City Kitchen is a soup kitchen in the Walnut Hills neighborhood that works to alleviate hunger in an environment of respect, care and hospitality.

“We’re trying to make sure that we’re filling in that gap for the community because there’s not a grocery store in [the Walnut Hills] area,” Ary Green, volunteer and communications coordinator at Queen City Kitchen, said. “We’re making sure that food is accessible to the people in a Greater Cincinnati area.”

This summer, Queen City Kitchen started a program with DoorDash to deliver groceries once a week to CPS families in need. Parents can sign up to receive hot meals and bags of pantry items based on household size.

“We started the program with Cincinnati Public Schools to extend our reach as far as we could, making sure that we weren’t just reaching Over the Rhine, or downtown, or Walnut Hills or Evanston,” Green said. “We reached out even further; we went to North Avondale; we went to South Avondale; we went further out into the community, making sure that we were going as far as we could to make sure that other communities knew that we’re here.”

Queen City Kitchen is open five days a week and provides hot meals and pantry items to 50-80 people in need of food each day, regardless of their ZIP code. Community members can also visit the choice pantry, adjacent to the Walnut Hills Kitchen, to get groceries once a week. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the kitchen has experienced an increased demand for meals.

“We scaled up our services by receiving more donations, sending out more fliers, more emails and letting people know ‘Hey, we are still open. We’re still out here. We’re still serving the community,’” Green said.

Green is proud of the impact Queen City Kitchen continues to make each day.

[When] I send out bags of groceries, I just have a name. I don’t have a face. I don’t have a voice, [but] I get calls on my voicemail and I just hear people melting over the phone saying thank you”

— Ary Green, volunteer and communications coordinator at Queen City Kitchen

“[When] I send out bags of groceries, I just have a name. I don’t have a face. I don’t have a voice, [but] I get calls on my voicemail and I just hear people melting over the phone saying thank you,” Green said.

Even with soup kitchens in the neighborhood, Norris and many WHHS students are in agreement that free school lunch funds should continue as pandemic-caused food insecurity is replaced with other financial stressors.

“With inflation and everything now, I think the kids and parents probably need help more than they did during COVID,” Norris said. “It seems to me that they should revisit this issue and maybe change it up and let the kids eat for free again.”

The total lunch debt has increased by about 10% this school year compared to the 2019-2020 school year, the most recent school year before pandemic-prompted government funding for school lunches began.

“I think it was a productive use of funding,” Girish Murali, ‘25, said. “Many people who couldn’t afford to buy a lunch could have a free lunch.”

Despite the end of the pandemic-era free meal program, students are encouraged to take advantage of the free breakfasts and community services available to them.

“We’re here every day, striving to do the absolute best we can to make sure that you all are taken care of,” Norris said.

This story was originally published on The Chatterbox on January 31, 2023.