House leaders hope to meet later this week to pass an emergency-certified bill that would include more federal funding to continue a recently-expired program providing free school meals for Connecticut students.
The legislation would allocate between $50 and $60 million funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to extend an initiative that fed school children throughout the pandemic, even those who did not qualify for other forms of assistance. Previous federal funding began to run dry late last year, leading local officials in many districts to suspend the program.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Matt Ritter said the issue had been an important priority for many members of his caucus.
“There was clearly a change for a lot of districts, where the kids were getting free lunches in November and then it stopped and the hardship that caused,” Ritter said. “What we’ve agreed in principle to do is fund it for the rest of the school year.”
The exact amount of additional ARPA funds will depend on when the program goes back into effect. The concept will be one of several expected to be contained in the emergency-certified legislation, which will also address a controversy over the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s implementation of the state bottle bill.
When it comes to school meals, Ritter said lawmakers may consider other alternatives in the future including adopting grants that match local investments in the program or working with school districts to insure more students qualify for free and reduced meals.
On Tuesday, the legislature’s Committee on Children heard testimony on a bill that would support the lunch program on an ongoing basis using state funding.
During the hearing, Jennifer Bove, nutrition services director of East Hampton Public Schools, said the no-charge meals program resulted in twice as many students eating lunch and four times as many eating breakfast.
When the program expired, participation levels dropped even among children who still qualified for assistance, Bove said. East Hampton saw a 26% decline in participation among students who qualified for free and reduced lunch, she said. Meanwhile, breakfast participation dropped by 31%. Bove said the decline was due to the stigma associated with qualifying for nutritional assistance programs.
“Think about that: 26% of students with documented food insecurity that used to eat with us every single day are choosing to go hungry because of the fear of stigma in the schools,” Bove said.
Rep. Liz Linehan, a Cheshire Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said lawmakers want to ensure that whatever action they take to support the program is sustainable over time.
“Sometimes we make these big decisions when we’re flush with money and then we have to walk it back. That’s a real big fear of mine. I’d love to be able to do this all the time but the reality is that maybe we can’t,” she said.
Linehan expressed interest in applying an additional state subsidy to increase the number of students who qualify without paying for universally free meals. She asked Bove to recommend a cutoff point for a broader qualification threshold. Bove declined to do so.
“I don’t believe that raising the level of free and reduced will solve the problem,” she said. “Again, we have 26% of kids who just won’t eat because they’re afraid of that stigma.”
In an interview Tuesday, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said he did not expect to see opposition from House Republicans on the provisions of the legislation expected to be taken up later this week.
Going forward, Candelora said he did not support the state paying for the meals of students who did not require additional financial support, but felt it was fair to continue the already-started program for the duration of this school year.
“We have a challenge on our hands with the expiration of these ARPA dollars — how do you gently land the airplane?” Candelora said. “We’re giving free lunches to individuals that may not need them. That’s a concern. But on the flip side, it’s a program that schools committed to at the beginning of the year. How do you not see it through to the end of June?”
Candelora also expected support for the provision revisiting recent changes to the state bottle bill, which he said would codify the intent of lawmakers.
Back in 2021, when lawmakers expanded the slate of beverages that now require a deposit charge, they said during a floor debate that they did not intend for the charge to apply to hard seltzers made from wine or spirits like vodka.
However, DEEP interpreted the language of the bill as extending to those seltzers. That disagreement has proven to be a sticking point in the reconfirmation of the agency’s commissioner, Katie Dykes.
On Tuesday, Ritter said the emergency-certified language would re-establish that the bottle bill would not apply to spirit-based seltzers. He said the issue was a “point of great contention” in 2021 and not one legislative leaders were eager to revisit.
“There are people who feel that the issue was resolved and it crept back up and I think the feeling in the room is let’s go back to the original deal as it was understood and if prospectively, people want to introduce legislation to change, that’s fair game,” Ritter said. “But trying to manage the chamber, get things done, move my exec noms, I think this is going to be a helpful step in the process.”