CINCINNATI – Stores are stocking their shelves with the essential back-to-school supplies in anticipation of the start of classes over the next few days. Things like crayons, backpacks and notebooks are flying off store shelves.

But one some of the most important school supplies won’t help a student take notes in history class or solve a calculus problem. And, in some cases, it can be just as hard to get this time of year.


What You Need To Know

  • Cincinnati Public Schools serves more than 50,000 meals a day

  • More than 85% of CPS students qualify for free or reduced lunches

  • CPS also partners with local food pantries to provide to provide resources to families throughout the year

  • Supply chain issues are forcing CPS to make menu changes, but the district remains committed to providing 'healthy' options every day

When Cincinnati Public Schools classes resume Thursday, Aug. 18, about 85% of its roughly 36,000 students will receive free or reduced lunches every day, while the district provides all students with a free breakfast. Many other students will opt to buy lunch at school, rather than bringing food from home.

CPS provides 50,000 meals a day. A spokesperson for the district described Cincinnati Public Schools as the biggest restaurant chain in Cincinnati.

It’s not just pizza and chicken nuggets in the schools these days. CPS dining team — which includes an on-staff nutritionist, a chef and other staff — aims to provide a balanced, nutritional menu for students. Each meal includes an entrée with lean proteins and whole grains, a choice of four fruit and vegetable sides, including a fresh garden bar, and skim milk.

“Having a good, healthy meal is so important to a good start to the day for everyone. Our CPS kids are no different,” said Courtney Morabito, manager of operations for students signing Services at Cincinnati Public Schools.

Morabito, now in her seventh year with CPS, oversees a team that prepares breakfast and lunch at all 65 of the district’s school buildings, both during the school year and in the summer.

She described food as a “foundational tool” that helps ensure students are at their best when they’re in the classroom. 

A brief compiled by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) outlines a link between eating breakfast and school performance among children. The findings include how eating, and not eating, breakfast can affect everything from attention span to brain function to overall wellness.

During COVID, all students qualified for free meals. That USDA waiver ended at the end of last school year, so the district is going back to its pre-COVID method where families have to apply based on income.

“Our goal is to ensure our students get a nourishing meal every day, with a mix of fruits and vegetables and whole grains,” she said. “We try to introduce students to a variety of the meal components required by USDA but also give them the options so they can choose between different foods they might not be exposed to outside of school.”

Ensuring that access to a variety of healthy foods is important, Morabito said, because food insecurity is prevalent in the Greater Cincinnati region. 

The region’s largest food pantry, the Freestore Foodbank, distributes 37.7 million meals annually to low-income individuals and families across 20 counties throughout Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.

Kurt Reiber, the organization’s CEO, said there are more than 90,000 children living in the region who are “food insecure,” meaning they aren’t always sure where they will get their next meal.

Pandemic-related financial issues, ranging from inflation to job loss, have only worsened the situation. He said 75% of the individuals who walked into food distribution centers during the pandemic had never been to one before.

Now, many families must decide between buying food and paying rent, he said.

“Even with free and reduced breakfast and lunch at school, oftentimes there’s an absence of quality nutritious meals when the student is home — either after school, over the weekend, or especially during extended holiday breaks,” Reiber said.

To address the issue, Freestore Foodbank is one of the pantries that partner with CPS on programs to feed students and even their families. One of those is Freestore’s school pantry program, which is available in 14 different CPS schools.

The pantries offer shelf-stable and frozen food items, as well as health and hygiene products. They also have pop-up produce markets at least once or twice a month, Reiber said.

The goal is to reach not only the students but also the entire family, Reiber said. He said being on site helps them break down barriers — distance, social stigmas, transportation, etc. — that may keep families from having access to food.

Most pantries are open during extracurricular activities, events like open houses or parent-teacher conferences, so families can shop while they’re already at school.

One of those pantries is at Oyler School in Lower Price Hill.

Oyler’s pantry offers at least one community food distribution a month, according to Jami Harris-Luggen, the school’s resource coordinator. She said families can schedule an appointment to visit the pantry, as well.

Harris-Luggen stressed CPS’ commitment to doing anything necessary to make sure we can fill in the gaps for kids, whether it’s during the summer months or after school.

“When kids are worried about other things, especially if their basic needs aren’t being met, their mind isn’t in a place to sit and receive information from their teacher and think critically about it,” she noted. 

While the food pantries are targeted toward middle and high school students, CPS and the Freestore Food Bank offer other programs for their youngest students. Each Friday during the school year, for example, the Freestore sends "Power Packs" home with food-insecure students in kindergarten through sixth grade to ensure they're adequately fed over the weekend. 

Each pack contains more than a dozen kid-friendly food items, ranging from whole grain cereals and various juices to oatmeal bars and complete pasta meals.

More than 300 Oyler students bring a pack home each week.

While the CPS dining staff is ready to prepare tens of thousands of lunches on Day 1 of the 2022-23 school year, they’re still working to address ongoing challenges with getting all the food they actually want.

Supply chain issues are affecting both the availability of certain foods, like chicken, and also products they need to transport food, like containers and paper products.

“It’s month after month, week to week,” Morabito said.

Morabito feels CPS is going to have difficulties keeping up with planned and listed school menus until the supply chain issues are over.

That means cafeteria offerings may look a little different and sometimes may mean students don’t get the foods they’re used to eating in the cafeteria, she added.

When changes to the posted school menu become necessary, CPS plans to substitute the scheduled menu item with another that is as similar as possible, Morabito said. But ultimately, she said, it will come down to what’s available.

“Each week we communicate with our lunchroom managers who order the food, what substitutions there are, what’s available, what’s not available,” she added. “It’s imperative that we keep that supply chain discussion on the table with our vendors because we never know what is going to come the next day.”

Regardless of what’s available, Morabito said CPS isn’t going to “skim and scrape” together food items or take lesser quality products. They’re just looking for other methods to get those foods.

“Our job is to make sure we have everything it takes for our students to be successful in the classroom and in life,” she added. “We want kids to focus on getting to school and doing what they need to do in the classroom, not worrying about being hungry.”

Editor's note: A bullet point in the What Your Need to Know section of this story incorrectly stated "More than 85% of CPS schools receive free or reduced lunch. It should have read, "More than 85% of CPS students qualify for free or reduced lunches. That stat was mentioned correctly in the body of the story. (August 16, 2022)