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    Monday, May 20, 2024

    Connecticut children to get free school meals for remainder of year after legislative vote

    Second-grade students select their meals during lunch break in the cafeteria at an elementary school in Scottsdale, Ariz., Dec. 12, 2022. On Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, U.S. agriculture officials proposed new nutrition standards for school meals, including the first-ever limits on added sugars, with a focus on sweetened foods such as cereals, yogurt, flavored milk and breakfast pastries. (AP Photo/Alberto Mariani, File)

    State legislators passed an emergency certification package Thursday that will bring universal free meals back to Connecticut public schools for the remainder of the academic year.

    The bill, which will provide $60 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to K-12 schools to sustain free breakfast and lunch programs until June 30, 2023, unanimously passed in the House of Representatives and the Senate, but anti-hunger advocates and lawmakers remain divided on the need for a permanent state-funded universal meal program that would cost taxpayers $90 million annually.

    “This, to me, is a moral issue,” Senate Majority Leader Sen. Bob Duff said before the vote on the Senate floor. “There should be no disagreement about ensuring that our kids have food in their stomachs and are not hungry in this state. There is plenty of food out there, we just have to make sure that we get that food to our children across the state of Connecticut.”

    Connecticut schools found themselves in financial limbo this winter after exhausting a $30 million appropriation of ARPA funds intended to aid families as they transitioned back to paid breakfast and lunch.

    Jennifer Bove, East Hampton’s director of nutrition services, described her district’s “shockingly awful” experience switching back to paid meals after their grant ran out on Dec. 1. She said the revitalized funding for the free meals program is a relief — for now.

    “This is huge for us,” Bove said. “We have so many families who didn’t qualify for free or reduced and are really struggling, and these last two months have hit them so hard. To be able to say to them, ‘You don’t have to pay for your meals anymore,’ it’s going to make a huge difference to so many families in our district … a huge difference in their lives.”

    Bove said that East Hampton saw a 44% drop in lunch participation and 60% decrease in breakfast participation, including a 26% decrease in participation among students who already qualify for free and reduced lunch — a figure that Bove attributes to the stigma surrounding the federal nutrition programs.

    Bove said the temporary relief will help turn these numbers around, but, if the funding is not extended permanently, it’s only a matter of time before children stop eating.

    “The governor kind of said, ‘This is so important and we need to feed children, but we’re only doing it this year.’ And that doesn’t make any sense,” Bove said, referencing Gov. Ned Lamont’s budget proposal speech on Wednesday. “Listening to what the lawmakers are saying, I know that they want to do something to help the situation in schools for the following year, but they don’t want to foot the full $90 million bill to make meals free for all. But if they don’t do that, we’re going to have our neediest students not eating and they will choose to go hungry because the stigma is very real in their minds.”

    Other nutrition service directors and members of the “School Meals 4 All CT” coalition continue to lobby the state legislature for permanent free meal funding, but many political leaders remain unconvinced that such a program will be sustainable or necessary in the years to come.

    Secretary of the Office of Policy Management Jeffrey Beckham said the governor’s office will continue conversations with the General Assembly about extending free meal funding, although the current budget proposal does not factor in a permanent program.

    Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rep. Toni Walker said that the legislature wants to avoid shouldering the cost that the federal government would normally cover for students who qualify for USDA Child Nutrition Programs. She also wants wealthy districts to step up to the plate.

    “We have to also think about [whether] some of the districts have the ability to pay. That’s just an automatic,” Walker said at a pre-session press conference Thursday. “We complain about having everybody pay the same thing in many ways because we say we don’t want to cover the poverty, but we also don’t want to cover the affluent communities either.”

    “We can look at the property rates in any of those communities and come to a pretty quick determination about whether they can afford to pay for it,” House Majority Leader Jason Rojas added.

    Senate Majority Leader Sen. Bob Duff said that food insecurity was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. He reiterated that hunger can be found even in the state’s wealthiest districts.

    “We need to make sure that our students are fed throughout the day. [With free meals] they can do well in school, they don’t have grumbling stomachs, we know that the incidences of absenteeism or discipline goes down,” Duff said. “We need to figure out how to move forward with this in the future as well and I’m confident we could do that.”

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