A bill passed in the legislature Thursday will extend free school lunches through the end of this school year – but several lawmakers are pushing to continue the program beyond this year, while others are asking whether another approach to child hunger is needed.
The bill adds $60 million to the $30 million already put aside in federal coronavirus relief to continue offering free school breakfasts and lunches to students through the current school year.
In June, the federal congress ended a 2020 waiver that allowed school districts to offer school meals to all students regardless of income and without parents being required to fill out a form to request those meals.
Districts with 40 percent of students living in poverty are already able to offer free school lunches to all their students through the national Community Eligibility Provision. But other districts that do not qualify have told CT Examiner that the universal free school lunches allowed them to recuperate [recoup?] far more in lunch costs than they would have otherwise, particularly in a time when inflation has pushed up the cost of food.
Fran Rabinowitz, president of the state’s superintendents association, said that the cost of school lunches is something that districts continue to struggle with.
“I can’t tell you every single district, but I’m hearing it often enough that I know it’s a widespread issue,” she said.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said that the funding for free school meals was set to expire between November and February of this year, depending on the district.
“No matter where you live, there’s poverty. No matter where you live, there are hungry children,” said Osten, adding that she was looking forward to talking more about how to continue the funding beyond this year.
State Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, where just over a quarter of children are eligible for free or reduced lunch, said he’d heard from many people in his district who told him they felt like “the rug had been pulled out from underneath them right in the middle of the school year.”
“I hope … we can work collaboratively over the next few months to ensure that this policy continues,” said Slap.
But House Democrats said that while they planned to extend the free school meals to the end of this school year, further conversations would be needed to decide what to do beyond this June. State Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said that some school districts could afford to pay for free school meals for the children who needed them.
“They have the ability — we need to direct these dollars to different things,” said Walker.
Speaker of the House Matt Ritter said that schools may be able to use increases in the education cost sharing formula to pay for lunches for students who need it.
Republicans also questioned the extension of the program.
“Many of our districts that participated in the program did not come to us and say ‘Extend this program.’ So is there really a need?” asked State House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora.
Parents in a district that doesn’t qualify for universal free meals can fill out an application so that their child can receive free breakfast or lunch.
State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said she understood that sometimes parents didn’t fill out the form because they felt ashamed.
“So I think you have to weigh [in] human nature, but you also have to weigh [in] — where is it really needed?” she said.
Cheeseman said she felt the state should be doing more to make sure that families could afford to purchase food for their children.
“Absolutely no child should go hungry. But as we look at providing meals for our children we need to focus on the parents who are providing the food for them. We continue to see huge food inflation. We continue to see huge pressure on kitchen table budgets, and on the money you have in your pocket,” she said.
The State Department of Education said in a statement that it appreciates the extension of free school lunches this school year.
“School meals are an important part of the school day and having access to healthy and nutritious meals is essential to learning,” the statement read.