Maya McFadden / New Haven Independent

Based on a special waiver issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), school districts in Connecticut will be able to offer free lunches to all students – even during the winter break.

A side-effect of COVID-19 has been high job losses resulting in food insecurity, and the demand for free lunch has been higher this year according to Randall Mel Jr., food service director at Hamden Public Schools.

“With the uncertainty of everything right now and the high rate of unemployment, especially here in the town of Hamden we have noticed so many parents have been put into a very stressful situation given the schools going remote and they are unable to work again,” Mel said. “To be able to pick up or be able to have the meals delivered to them is such a cost-saver to them.”

Since Hamden Schools started remote-only learning on Nov. 23, the bus company in town has been delivering free breakfast and lunch to any student under the age of 18 who wants one. The USDA waiver that made the continuation of these meals possible is called “Seamless Summer Option.”

According to the USDA website, “Seamless Summer has less paperwork, making it easier for schools to feed children during the traditional summer vacation periods and, for year-round schools, long school vacation periods.”

In fiscal year 2019, 182,177 students statewide were counted as low-income and eligible for free lunch, according to the Connecticut School Finance Project.

Given the unprecedented impact of COVID-19, free meals became available to all students and will continue that way through June 2021, according to Erin Biagetti, president of the School Nutrition Association of Connecticut and food services director of Guilford Public Schools.

“During the pandemic school districts are able to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students regardless of income or qualifications,” Biagetti said. “With the support of the USDA and CSDE (Connecticut State Department of Education) these benefits have been extended through June 2021. The meals themselves have been impacted by COVID with the emphasis on safety. We have always been focused on safety and nutrition but now meals are designed to be served in classrooms, taken home and delivered to houses/sites.”

School districts are not required to continue providing free lunch during the upcoming winter break, but Biagetti said that most districts are doing their best to make it happen.

“I know many districts are working hard to be able to accommodate their students and families by supplying these meals when they can,” Biagetti said. “There are many factors that go into providing meals when schools are not in session and each district must make that decision for what works best for them. “

New Haven and Hamden Public Schools both opted to devote resources and staff to providing meals during the break.

“We will be distributing extra meals during the week of Dec. 21 through Dec. 23, to carry parents through Dec. 28,” said Gail Sharry, food service director of New Haven Public Schools. “We also will have 11 schools open during the winter break. Food Service will be distributing extra meals during the four days to carry the parent over until we return on Jan. 4, 2021.”

Robin Lamott Sparks, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut! said her organization is working to advertise the availability of the free meals during break so parents know it is a resource.

“The schools can do it, but if the parents don’t take advantage of it, it doesn’t help,” Sparks said. “We think it’s really critical because that’s a long time for families to go without that resource. Kids eat a lot when they are home at break.”

The need for free meals varies district by district, Sparks said. In some districts, parents are not taking full advantage of the free meals.

“It could be for a variety of reasons,” Sparks said. “It could be that the meals are only offered at a certain time and they can’t get there. There has to be a parent or guardian to pick it up. If you have a 10-year-old watching the siblings you can’t go get it.”

Sparks praised Hamden’s initiative of using the buses to deliver food, but acknowledged that not every district has that option.

“Sometimes districts don’t even have school buses at their disposal,” Sparks said. “It takes a lot of flexibility to meet parents where they are and COVID really shows that.”

Mel said that parents have reached out to the school district to thank them for continuing to work over break.

“It’s sad to hear how many people are in these situations especially as the schools closed up and various businesses closed back up – the need for food is higher than ever,” Mel said.

While school lunches help, sometimes families still need more assistance during these times. At the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) call center directed by End Hunger Connecticut!, Sparks said the hotline has been “constantly busy.” Sparks and other employees are working to help families through the sometimes challenging process of applying for government food assistance, formerly known as food stamps.

“SNAP is actually better for the economy and for folks than going to a food pantry,” Sparks said. “For every dollar SNAP spends it turns around a $1.80 impact for the area. People are keeping other people employed at the grocery store and you get a choice of what you want to eat, not what someone has decided to give you.”