Lucy Nolan, policy director of End Hunger CT! Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

A coalition of lawmakers and advocacy groups called Thursday for the state of Connecticut to cover the cost of school meals for all students in order to fill a void left by a federal support that fed children throughout the pandemic. 

During a morning press conference in the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, members of End Hunger CT! and School Meals 4 All CT began a push to support two related policies. One would include funding for school meals in the next two-year state budget. The other would be an emergency certified bill to dedicate between $35 and $50 million to provide meals through the end of this year.

“We must invest in this very basic need,” Lucy Nolan, policy director of End Hunger CT!, said. “School meals are an integral part of a student’s education just as text books and transportation is. There should be no income eligibility test. A hungry child can not learn.”

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 to fill a void left by a temporary U.S. Department of Agriculture program that had paid for the meals since the pandemic.

Those funds began to dry up in November, causing school districts to revert back to the state’s existing meal support programs for which eligibility is based on the income of parents. Meals are also still free in districts that qualify for the state’s Community Eligibility Provision program which serves qualifying low-income areas.

Hadley Hamilton-Moras, a fifth grader at West Hartford’s Charter Oak School, said some of her peers had recently stopped eating at school.

“When school meals were free in West Hartford, all of my friends ate lunch every day,” she said. “Since free meals stopped, I have friends who don’t eat lunch because they don’t have food at home and they don’t have money to buy it. I think everyone deserves to have food but especially kids.”

Hadley Hamilton-Moras, a fifth grader at Charter Oak School in West Hartford Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Advocates at Thursday’s press conference said the income tests in some districts have resulted in some children not participating as a result of stigmas associated with needing assistance. Jen Bove, nutrition services director of East Hampton Public Schools, said she had observed a decrease in participation since the expiration of the free meal program. 

“That means that 27% of our students with documented food insecurity are not eating with us right now,” Bove said. “When full price students top eating school lunch, free and reduced students stop too because of the fear of stigma.”

Lawmakers including Public Health Committee co-chair Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, and Childrens Committee co-chair Sen. Ceci Maher, D-Wilton, said they had been in conversations with the Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate and expected both school meal funding proposals to receive support in the coming session. 

“I have yet to see any of my colleagues say ‘that’s not a good idea,’” Anwar said. “Everybody came forward and said ‘This is a great idea, we have to do this. This is our responsibility.’’”

Bove said that her school district reverted back to a paid meal model after funding expired on Dec. 1. The change led to “immediate” and “awful” impacts and painful conversations with cash-strapped parents whose children no longer qualified for free meals. 

“A lot of these conversations were heartbreaking and I went home feeling hopeless,” Bove said. “I told my husband the first night I came home that if lawmakers had to take the calls that I had to take that day, they would reinstate funding for this immediately without question.”