CPS uses food to fuel students’ ‘healthy’ start to the year

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

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


What do you want to know

  • Cincinnati public schools serve more than 50,000 meals a day
  • Over 85% of CPS schools receive free or discounted lunches
  • CPS also partners with local food pantries to provide resources for families throughout the year.
  • Supply chain issues force CPS to change menu, but district remains committed to providing ‘healthy’ options every day

When Cincinnati Public Schools resumes Thursday, Aug. 18, about 85 percent of its approximately 36,000 students will receive free or reduced-price lunches each day, while the district is providing all students with free breakfast. Many other students will choose to buy lunch at school, rather than bringing food from home.

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

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

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

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

She described food as a “fundamental tool” to ensure students are at their best when in class.

A note written by the The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) links breakfast to children’s academic performance. Findings include how eating, and not eating, breakfast can affect everything from attention span to brain function to overall well-being.

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

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

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

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

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

Pandemic-related financial problems, ranging from inflation to job loss, have only made matters worse. He said 75% of people who entered food distribution centers during the pandemic had never been there before.

Today, many families have to choose between buying food and paying rent, he said.

“Even with free and reduced breakfast and lunch at school, there is often an absence of quality, nutritious meals when the student is home – either after school, on weekends, or especially during extended vacations,” Reiber said.

To solve the problem, Freestore Foodbank is one of the pantries that is partnering with CPS on programs to feed students and even their families. One of these is Freestore’s school pantry program, which is available at 14 different CPS schools.

Food pantries offer shelf-stable and frozen food products, 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 just students but the whole family, Reiber said. He said being there helps them break down barriers – distance, social stigma, transportation, etc. – which can prevent families from having access to food.

Most food 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 these 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 also make an appointment to visit the pantry.

Harris-Luggen underscored CPS’s commitment to doing whatever is necessary to ensure we can fill the gaps for children, whether during the summer months or after school.

“When children are worried about other things, especially if their basic needs aren’t being met, their minds aren’t able to sit and receive information from their teacher and think about it in a meaningful way. critical,” she noted.

While Pantries are aimed at middle and high school students, CPS and the Freestore Food Bank offer other programs for their younger students. Every Friday during the school year, for example, the Freestore sends “Power Packs” home with food-insecure students from kindergarten through sixth grade to ensure they are properly nourished during the weekend.

Each package contains more than a dozen kid-friendly foods, ranging from whole grain cereals and various juices to oat bars and wholemeal pasta dishes.

More than 300 Oyler students bring back a backpack every week.

While CPS catering staff are ready to prepare tens of thousands of lunches on Day 1 of the 2022-2023 school year, they are still working to meet the ongoing challenges of getting all the food they actually want.

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

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

Morabito believes CPS will have difficulty keeping up with planned and listed school menus until supply chain issues are resolved.

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

When changes to the school’s displayed menu become necessary, CPS plans to replace the intended menu item with one as similar as possible, Morabito said. But ultimately, she says, it will depend on what is available.

“Each week we communicate with our dining room managers who are ordering the food, what substitutions there are, what’s available, what’s not available,” she added. “It’s imperative that we keep this supply chain discussion on the table with our suppliers because we never know what’s going to happen the next day.”

Regardless of what’s available, Morabito said CPS isn’t going to “skim and scrape” foods together or take lower-quality products. They are simply looking for other methods to obtain these foods.

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