State Legislators Debate Added Funding for School Lunches

Sam Wilson of New London Public Schools testifies before the legislature's budget committee in favor of school lunches as Randall Mel of Middletown Public Schools looks on (CT Examiner)


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HARTFORD — In the New London Public Schools, where over half of the students identify as Hispanic or Latino, lunch may take on a distinct flavor: Pernil, a Puerto Rican roasted pork dish, with arroz con gandules (rice with peas) and roasted plantains. 

“It has quickly become the favorite meal in the district,” Sam Wilson, the Child Nutrition Program Director for the district, told CT Examiner. 

Wilson said the Pernil was part of an effort in her district to create more culturally relevant meals. Another dish they offer, she said, is a Peruvian roast chicken thigh, the Peruvian rice dish arroz chaufa and a chopped salad called solterito. 

New London is part of the federal Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, program, which fully funds the cost of school meals for districts that have a large percentage of low-income students. Wilson said this funding is what allows her district to offer the types of meals they can — food that is “thoughtfully prepared” from scratch. 

“When you’re trying to scrape every single penny by, it’s a challenge to have the flexibility to implement a program like ours,” said Wilson. 

Although Wilson’s district is not one of those that will be affected, she joined food service workers and educators from across the state at the Capitol on Tuesday morning — bearing banana and blueberry muffins — to ask the legislature’s budget committee for $16 million to fund school meals for all students in the state in the 2024-25 school year. 

During the pandemic, all districts were able to offer free school meals to their students for a few years, thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture waiver. But last year, those benefits expired, although Connecticut’s state legislature voted in February 2023 to extend free breakfast and lunch through the end of this school year. 

At a press conference on Tuesday, several legislators, including State Rep. Gary Turco, D-Newington and State Rep. Moira Rader, D-Guilford, vowed to support full funding of school meals across the state, even if it meant adjusting the state’s fiscal guardrails to do it. 

But at a public hearing afterward, State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, chair of the legislature’s budget committee, challenged the legislators and the food service workers who testified, saying that the districts still had millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief funding that had not been allocated, money that she said could be spent on making school meals free. 

“We just want to make sure the funds are being spent and not returned to the federal government,” said Osten. “And this is a perfect mechanism to use some of those funds.” 

Osten noted that New London has over $10.6 million remaining and Middletown has about $1.475 million remaining. 

“We want to make sure that, when you go back, that you are saying to your school system, if you have not allocated the money by September 1st, it will be returned to the federal government,” said Osten. “If you have no place for this money to go, it should go into the school meal program, as a way to foster funding for this.”

Funding needs

Food service directors told CT Examiner that they’re seeing more demand for school breakfasts and lunches since COVID began, and that the CEP program doesn’t always cover the cost of the meals, even in urban districts. 

Ernie Koschmieder, the food service director for Groton Public Schools, told CT Examiner that only half of Groton’s schools qualify for CEP. He said they receive $1.27 per breakfast and $2.50 per lunch from the USDA, which he said wasn’t nearly enough. In contrast, New London receives about $2.75 per breakfast and $4.50 per lunch. 

“A child shouldn’t have to worry about finances, at school or at home,” said Kristina Roberge, the president of the School Nutrition Association of Connecticut and the food service coordinator at Groton Public Schools. 

Currently, Groton has about $30,000 in unpaid lunch debt, and school officials expect that number to rise to $60,000 by the end of the school year. Koschmieder said that since COVID, the number of students taking advantage of the free meals has doubled. 

Roberge said that beyond simply feeding students a meal, they want to influence their nutrition choices later in life. She said they offer four kinds of fruit and five kinds of vegetables at lunch. Elementary students are enjoying frozen peas and hummus, among other things. 

“We want our kids to first and foremost try different things,” said Roberge. 

Districts also contract with local farms for produce. Roberge said that Groton gets their lettuce locally, and Wilson said that the pork for the Pernil comes from a pig farmer in Waterford. 

Wilson said that New London does still serve some “fan favorites” like pizza and cheeseburgers. And surveys sent around to the elementary schools and Beman Middle School in the Middletown School District showed that the students’ favorite foods tended to lean toward more traditional school lunches — pizza, mozzarella sticks, fish sticks, french toast sticks and cheeseburgers. 

But Randall Mel, the district’s food service coordinator, said they do try to offer innovative choices, including special meals that come from student recipes — last week, it was chili cheese fries, this week barbecue steak and cheese. They’ve made orange chicken and impossible burgers, and offer a large variety of food and vegetables. They have a full pizza station at the high school, and they have a salad bar and a deli bar. 

But Mel also said that even the CEP program funds food for their district only at about 78 percent. Fully funded, he said, the district would be getting 50 cents more per breakfast and 80 cents more per lunch.

Mel said the demand for meals has increased substantially — last year, he said, they served 250,000 breakfasts total. This year, he said, they have already exceeded that number and are on track to serve 400,000. According to edsight data, the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch in Middletown rose from 43 percent pre-pandemic to 48 percent this year. 

Mel told Osten that CEP districts could not use the federal coronavirus relief funds to supplement their school lunch money because of strict federal guidelines, and he said that Middletown had already allocated all of its coronavirus relief funds. 

Osten said that she and Walker were aware of the gap in funding for certain districts that received CEP funds, and that it was a concern of theirs.

“We recognize that the CEP towns are not funded to cover the total cost of the food program. So we want to make sure that we’re addressing that issue, also,” said Osten.

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.