A pot of federal money that has provided free school meals for students across Connecticut has begun to run dry, saddling parents in some districts with nutritional expenses they have not been responsible for since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the outset of this school year, state education officials dedicated around $30 million of federal funding to pay for free breakfast and lunch meals for students at public schools. The allocation was designed fill a void left by a temporary U.S. Department of Agriculture program that had paid for the meals since the pandemic.
For some of the 124 districts that opted into the temporary program, that funding has begun to run out.
In a Wednesday press release, Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, said the free meals for children will continue at some districts in his area like East Hartford and East Windsor while other towns like Ellington and South Windsor will revert back to paid meals for students who do not qualify for other programs.
“That will still leave many students at risk of going hungry,” Anwar said. “A hungry child has more challenges with learning and can be more likely to face setbacks in their development. We need to look at the nutritional development children were able to experience when this program was in place and see firsthand its importance.”
As of the end of November, 47 school districts had concluded the program and another 46 will have ended it by the end of this month, according to the state Department of Education.
In a statement, the agency said the temporary School Meals Assistance Revenue for Transition program was meant to provide free meals as schools transition from the pandemic era meals program back to the traditional program in which eligibility for free meals are determined by household income.
“Some districts are continuing to use their own school food service program funds to continue to support the household portion of the cost of meals for those not income eligible for free meals when the SMART funds are exhausted,” the Education Department statement said.
The depleted funds will not affect school districts participating in the state’s Community Eligibility Provision program, which provides free meals for students in qualifying low-income areas for the duration of the school year.
During the legislative session that begins next month, Anwar said he plans to propose a bill to make free school meals universally available for students going forward.
“The advantages these programs provide to students will drastically outweigh their costs and bolster our youth for the future,” Anwar said.
He will have allies on that front. In a Wednesday interview, Lucy Nolan, policy director for End Hunger Connecticut!, said her group was building a coalition of support for legislation to require the state to support school meals.
Although the proposal would likely cost the state tens of millions each year, Nolan said ensuring children do not go hungry was a worthy cause.
“No matter what income a kid is from, they get better nutrition when they’re eating at school. They may eat when they wouldn’t otherwise,” Nolan said. Nutrition also impacts a young person’s ability to learn and their behavior while in the classroom, she said.
Although the pandemic has contributed to educational setbacks for many students who struggled as a result of the disruption or found remote learning difficult, it has also helped to identify the cracks in some of the systems designed to support children.
For instance, state lawmakers took strides during the past legislative session to shore up Connecticut’s strained system of mental health services for kids through bills that dedicated more than $100 million to boost school-based services and increase the number of providers.
Nolan suggested the pandemic could also serve as a turning point for how meals are provided to children.
“There are so many things that we now know we need. Things did change [during the pandemic] but not everything is going back to the way that it was,” Nolan said. “This is something that should not go back to the way it was. We know it was used and we know it is needed.”