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Ohio families can get more food for their kids this summer thanks to a new federal program

Shelves of vegetables sit at a grocery store.
A new nutrition program will give Ohio families a small boost this summer.

Many students across Ohio rely on free lunches throughout the school year. When the school year ends, so does their access to daily free meals.

It’s what some experts describe as the ‘summer food gap’, where child hunger spikes as students stop receiving school breakfast, lunches and afterschool snacks.

A new program in Ohio aims to help boost families’ nutrition outside of the school year. The Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer, or SUN Bucks program, will give Ohio families an additional economic boost to feed their children during the summer months.

It’s the first permanent federal nutrition benefit that’s been introduced in more than 50 years.

WVXU’s environmental reporter Isabel Nissley reported on the program and joined the Ohio Newsroom to explain.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

On the new program

“The SUN Bucks program will ultimately provide eligible families with $120 per child in school [each summer]. Those benefits can be used for groceries, really, at any store that accepts EBT.

The program is meant to address that hunger gap that students deal with during the summer months when free school meals aren't as readily available. Now, we've both been to the grocery store recently and have seen that $120 probably can't buy enough food to nourish a child for the whole summer. I talked with Kim McKenzie, the SNAP outreach manager at Cincinnati's Resource Food Bank, and she said that the SUN Bucks benefits can really offset the cost of food for families, especially when they're used with other nutrition assistance programs like SNAP or summer meal sites.

SUN Bucks are different from those summer meal programs, though, because they give students and families a little more nutritional choice. Rather than receiving pre-made meals, families receive money to spend on whatever groceries they need.”

On whose qualified

“The state estimates that more than 800,000 students in Ohio qualify for this program. Many of those families will receive the $120 directly under their Ohio Direction cards.

When I talked to Kim McKenzie, she said the state has automatically enrolled children whose families receive SNAP or Ohio Works First benefits in the program. Kids who receive Medicaid and who have been individually approved for free and reduced lunch will also automatically receive the SUN Bucks benefits.

A bag of groceries sits on wood.
Ohio advocates against child hunger hope the new program can help bridge the "summer food gap".

A number of other students are also eligible, but they'll have to apply for the program. That includes children experiencing homelessness, kids in families with mixed immigration statuses who might not be eligible to receive SNAP benefits, and children who receive free or reduced price lunch but didn't have to apply for the National School Lunch program.

The rollout of these benefits is expected to begin in mid-June, right around now. However, all families aren't going to receive those SUN Bucks on the same day. The distribution of them will continue throughout the summer.”

On other summer food assistance options

“Some meal programs are open for all kids throughout the state, ages one through 18. And most of the time they're at libraries, rec centers, churches, things like that. And children can go to eat at these meal sites, whether they're receiving SUN Bucks or not.

There is certainly a need for these programs in the state. Joree Novotny is the executive director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks, and [on an episode of Cincinnati Edition] she said that a hunger study found two out of three adults in Ohio were skipping meals or eating less at some point in this past year.

1 in 5 Ohio children experience hunger, according to Feeding America, and around 40% of households in the state that receive SNAP benefits are homes with children.”

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.