Vernon Superintendent Joe Macary Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Connecticut students will receive free breakfast and lunch meals at public schools for at least the first few weeks of the academic school year or until a $30 million appropriation of federal funding runs out, state education officials said Thursday.

The limited program will replace a federal initiative by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has reimbursed districts for providing 146 million meals to Connecticut students since the outset of the pandemic. 

In an interview following the release of school assessment data on Thursday, Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said that adequate nutrition and physical health were critically important elements of academic success for students.

“Have you ever tried to do anything or concentrate when you’re hungry? It just doesn’t happen,” Russell-Tucker said. “That’s why we pushed to have breakfasts available… That’s a lifeline for families, not having to worry about that, which means kids don’t have to worry about it. You have to be physically healthy in order to be able to thrive academically.”

The initiative will not affect school districts participating in the state’s Community Eligibility Provision program, which will provide free meals for students in qualifying low-income areas for the duration of the school year. But for the other 124 districts which have opted in, free meals will be provided until a $30 million pool of American Rescue Plan Act funds is exhausted.

This early in the school year, state officials have a difficult time predicting how long the program will last because it will depend on unknown variables like how many children participate and how many meals are served. 

“It’s really hard to say,” said John Frassinelli, director of the department’s Division of School Health, Nutrition, Family Services and Adult Education. “It depends on how long, it depends on how many meals are served, how many kids participated. Some estimates are that we’re hoping that it lasts until the Christmas break.” 

Skinner Road School in Vernon Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

In a Tuesday email to parents, West Hartford education officials estimated the funds would last their district for the first 45 to 60 days of the school year. 

On Thursday, Vernon Superintendent Joe Macary said it should support free meals for the duration of the calendar year, while students at the district’s three CEP eligible schools — Skinner Road School, Maple Street School, and Northeast School — would continue to receive free meals for the entire school year. 

“We’re going to be able to provide free lunch, free breakfast for all of our schools up until Jan. 1,” Macary said. “We’ve spoken to the board [of education] about it, we’re going to have a board meeting in October to see if there’s something we can do for the remainder of the year.” 

Although Russell-Tucker said it was not feasible for the state to fund a free meals program for all students in the absence of federal support, she hoped Congress may eventually vote to continue the waivers. In the meantime, she said parents should look to their school districts and be aware of a potential increase in expenses down the road.

“Districts are making decisions as to how [the funds] are impacting them but … for families that, for the past two years, didn’t have to worry or think about that, they may now have to be thinking about having to provide funds for kids for meals,” Russell-Tucker said.