Sen. Ceci Maher, D-Wilton, during a Feb. 28 meeting of the Committee on Children

The legislature’s Committee on Children advanced a proposal Tuesday that would provide Connecticut students with free school meals on an ongoing basis. The bill aims to make permanent a temporary initiative extended by state policymakers earlier this month.

The first bill passed this legislative session contained a provision which committed between $50 and $60 million in federal funding to continue a pandemic-era program that had fed all school children — not just those that qualify for other forms of assistance — until funding began to run dry late last year. The bill extended the program until the end of this school year. It won bipartisan support and was later signed by Gov. Ned Lamont.

However, a coalition of child advocates and lawmakers saw the legislation as a temporary victory, stopgap funding for a program that requires sustained support. 

During a Tuesday meeting, the Children’s Committee advanced a bill that requires ongoing support for free school meals but does not specify where it will come from. Those fiscal details will be ironed out later in the budgetary process, the panel’s chairs said.

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

“What we know is that there were a lot of students that did not get food during the time period where the [previous federal funding] ended and before the emergency certification that the governor put in place,” Sen. Ceci Maher, a Wilton Democrat who co-chairs the panel, said. “This bill is to move food forward for our students because we know that if a child is not fed, there are so many downsides to this.”

Although there was broad support for continuing the program for the duration of this school year, officials on both sides of the aisle have voiced varying degrees of skepticism at the idea of paying for free school meals permanently. 

The governor did not include funding for such an initiative in the two year budget package he proposed earlier this month and House Democratic leaders have said they favored a program where wealthy municipalities would foot some of the bill for free meals. 

Republicans, meanwhile, have opposed dedicating government funding to support families that do not need the financial assistance. During Tuesday’s meeting, Sen. Lisa Seminara, R-Avon, said constituents had contacted her with the same objections.

“There are many families that can afford to pay for their childrens’ lunch and [the constituents] do not feel that the taxpayers of Connecticut should have to cover the food for their children,” Seminara said. “I’m concerned about the fiscal note of this as well.”

It’s unclear how much the bill would cost because the bill has not yet advanced to budgetary screening committees. On Tuesday, Rep. Liz Linehan, a Cheshire Democrat who co-chairs the committee, envisioned a program that preserves federal support for programs like free and reduced lunches and then fills in the remaining gaps to ensure that all students are fed.

Although no one has disputed that some Connecticut families can afford to feed their children without government assistance, advocates contend the existence of programs that support only lower-income students creates a social stigma that results in many of those students choosing hunger over embarrassment. 

During a public hearing in early February, Jennifer Bove, nutrition services director of East Hampton Public Schools, told lawmakers her district saw a 26% decline in participation among students who qualified for free and reduced lunch.

“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 told the committee earlier this month. 

On Tuesday, Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, argued that food assistance programs failed to capture a complete picture of childhood hunger.

“All of us have to remember that there are people out there that are hungry and perhaps we think they have the ability to pay but there is more that goes into that besides, just on face value, those that have applied for free and reduced lunch,” Cohen said.