Advocates Push for Universal Free School Meals to ‘Reduce the Stigma’

Peggy Redcliff of East Hampton Public Schools advocating for free school meals, at the budget committee on Tuesday (CT-N)


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EAST HAMPTON – Peggy Redcliffe, who works for East Hampton Public Schools, said she once knew a third-grader who came to school every day with only snacks in her lunch box. When asked why, she said her sister – a fourth-grader – packed her meal for her. 

Redcliffe bought the student’s lunch that day. 

“When she brought me up her tray later, she said, ‘You’re not going to tell my mom, are you?’” Redcliffe said. 

Redcliffe is one of a number of school personnel and advocates who came before the legislature’s budget committee on Tuesday to ask the state to fund free meals for all public school students. While the budget committee is considering authorizing a study on what this would cost, advocates and some legislators are pressing to fund school meals immediately. 

“Let’s just fund the universal school meals because we know it works. It does reduce the stigma. It does make sure that every child eats. And then they’ll be able to learn and be healthier,” State Rep. Gary Turco, D-Newington, said.

“I’m pretty sure that for every student that goes to school now, they are handed a textbook and they are handed school supplies without a means test financially, and I think meals are that important,” Turco added. 

But other legislators argued it would not be fair for the state to pay for school meals for districts that were able to fund those meals themselves, or could get the money from other sources. 

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, chair of the legislature’s budget committee, said that funding school lunches — which she estimated would cost about $90 million  — would mean cutting back on other programs that the state funds, including ones that help single mothers or people who are intellectually disabled. 

“There are some schools that could afford free lunch right now, that could pay for it, that choose not to pay for it,” Osten said. “The state should not be paying if we direct a school to fund those school meals (and) they can afford that.” 

During the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture temporarily waived the requirement for students to apply for free and reduced lunch eligibility, allowing all students to qualify for a free meal regardless of household income. This year, those benefits expired, although Connecticut’s state legislature voted in February to extend free breakfast and lunch through the end of this school year. 

Across the state, about 42 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, a number that has remained relatively constant over the last five years. 

Fear of “stigma

The current proposal directs certain legislative committees to study how much money the state would need to pay for school meals each year, taking into account how much money families and towns can afford on their own before relying on state aid. 

But school administrators, food service workers and parents say that not having free school meals will create all sorts of problems — including parents that don’t sign up for the program for various reasons, unpaid meal debt from families that can’t pay and low reimbursement rates for meals that the district then has to foot the bill for. 

Dianne Houlihan, director of school dining for Waterford Public Schools, wrote in her testimony to the budget committee that there are families in her district that are just over the income limit for free and reduced lunch. 

“I had one family not qualify due to the fact that their high school student got a part-time job to pay for gas for the family’s car to take him to his sport events,” Houlihan wrote. “Because he wants to play sports, he was no longer able to qualify for free lunch as long as he works.  … He has to choose one or the other (sports or free lunch).”

A number of people mentioned the “stigma,” for both children and families, of signing up for free and reduced lunch. Oneda Lamont, a school counselor at Plainville High School, said there were  other reasons a family might not sign up, such as being undocumented or not understanding the process because of language barriers. 

“I had parents calling because they were afraid to go onto SNAP out of fear of being denied permission to bring a parent over who was blind and alone, fear of being deported, parents in the process of divorce, or their income was just $100 over the income limit,” said Christopher Scopetta, food service program coordinator for the Capitol Region Education Council, which runs magnet schools in the Hartford area. “These families wanted to know if they could provide documentation of these situations to prove these weren’t just made-up claims.” 

But State Rep. Joe Hoxha, R-Bristol, said he disagreed that free and reduced meals created stigma. He explained that when he was in school, children were provided with a form for their parents to fill out, and they would stand in the lunch line and pay with a card just like any other student. While he said he supported free meals for students that needed it, he didn’t agree it should be available for all children. 

“When I was in school, so many kids would throw out their lunch half-eaten… would just waste the food. Clearly these are kids that are pretty well fed one way or the other,” he said. 

‘Astronomical’ debt

Some school  districts also shared concerns surrounding parents who can’t afford meals and consequently go into debt, which the districts themselves often have to pay. 

Maggy Dreher, the director of nutrition services for Avon, Canton and Regional School District 10, said in the two months between the federal free lunch waiver’s expiration and when the state voted to fund free meals for the rest of the year, her districts’ negative cafeteria balance increased by $15,000. 

Osten referenced the Community Eligibility Program, a federally funded program that will allow districts with high poverty rates to qualify for free lunches for all students. Osten said there are districts in the state that haven’t taken advantage of the program, despite qualifying for it. 

But others argued the program’s reimbursement rates don’t fully cover the cost of the meals. 

Jill Kress, a food service liaison for the Norwalk Public Schools, said she has seen both sides of the story. In Norwalk, she said, students originally had to apply for free and reduced lunch. Then, in a bid to avoid “food shaming,” the district decided to give free meals to students even when they could not pay. This, she said, led the unpaid meal debt to rise to “astronomical proportions” — money that had to come out of the general education budget.

Kress said in her testimony that, although the district is now part of the Community Eligibility Program, it will still experience a “significant loss” of about $700,000 each year, because with 41 percent of students at free and reduced lunch status, they are within the lowest reimbursement levels. 

Jessica Weaver, a Newington Board of Education member, told legislators that the percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch in her district has increased from 22 percent to 34 percent. She framed free lunch as an issue of equity, and said that parents were “extremely relieved” when they were told the program would continue this year.

“The most popular (social media) comment about this notice (when) we said this program was continuing was, ‘I want my tax dollars going toward that,’” Weaver said. 

But State Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport, pushed back on the idea that paying for free meals for all districts was equitable, rather than focusing on students with the highest needs. 

“When it comes to this policy, I think we have to make sure that those who can pay, do pay,” Felipe said. “And until we do that, I don’t think we can move forward.” 

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.