ASHLAND — Amanda Piscitello carried emptied ketchup packets to a trash can in UH Samaritan Medical Center’s cafeteria during lunchtime Thursday afternoon.
Rejoining her four children back at the table, she asked them if they had prayed before they began eating. They hadn’t.
One of the young ones led the family in a short prayer before, again, digging in to the lunch of chicken tenders, tater tots and broccoli.
“This is a great program,” she said. “ It saves us a lot of money.”
The Piscitellos were just one of between 15 to 20 families who took advantage of the hospital’s summer lunch program. The program offers children aged 1-18 free lunches from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. every weekday through Aug. 22.
“No questions asked. You just have to be a kid,” said Luke Chandler, the hospital’s general manager of nutrition services.
University Hospitals has offered the program at various hospitals throughout the state for seven years, but 2023 marks the first year it popped up in Ashland.
To qualify for federal reimbursement through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, hospitals must show the areas they serve have 50% needy children or that 50% or more students in the public school system are served by USDA’s free and reduced lunch program.
Census data shows 52% of the area’s children fall under the “needy” classification.
Since June 5, UH Samaritan has served a hot lunch to, on average, around 33 children everyday, Chandler said.
There were 3,017 students enrolled at Ashland City Schools in 2022; 37% of them benefitted from the free and reduced lunch program, said Superintendent Steve Paramore.
“We can’t guarantee everyone signs up for it though,” Paramore said. “We definitely encourage it … and really try hard to find ways to assist our families that are in need.”
Paramore said the district’s 37% figure has stayed consistent for a number of years, but said district families likely felt added pressure when the federal government’s program that offered universal free lunches at schools across the nation from 2020 to 2022 expired.
When the program expired in the summer of 2022, it partly resulted in some districts within the county racking up thousands in school meal debt during the 2022-23 school year.
In Ashland, that number climbed to more than $20,000 by January, the largest amount of school meal debt within the county at the time.
“I don’t know if Ashland is a tremendously impoverished community, but it’s not an overly affluent community as well,” Paramore said.
Emergency allotments for families receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were cut in March, meaning 673,000 households in Ohio saw their benefits cut significantly.
Peter Stefaniuk, director of Ashland County Jobs and Family Services, said around between 1,500 and 2,000 families received SNAP benefits who experienced cuts as of March.
“It’s a big adjustment for needy families in our community,” he said.
A study conducted from 2020 to 2023 by the Center for Community Solutions found that one in eight families said they were not able to always afford the food to feed themselves or their families.
Though the nation’s inflation rate has seen a slight dip since 2022’s high of 8.3%, the current rate of 4% is still higher than the 1.76% low in 2019.
Knowing the pressures families feel these days, Chandler finds the free lunch program fulfilling.
“Food insecurity doesn’t always have the face like we’d expect,” he said. “Even if we’re helping lower the cost for something like groceries because we can give them meals everyday, I feel good. We’re doing what we can.”
And some of the children getting meals at the hospital want to give back.
Chandler said the hospital often provides coloring pages and crayons for children to play with while they eat. One day, a parent said it would be cool to deliver some of the colored pages to patients.
“I ran with it,” Chandler said. So the hospital printed black and white photos with “get well soon” messages on them. One of the templates is for congratulating new mothers.
“Talk about something else that’s very fulfilling as well, right? To see these kids filling out ‘get well’ wishes for strangers is pretty awesome,” he said.