Lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee were divided Tuesday over whether Connecticut should extend the free and reduced lunch program to all school districts regardless of need.
Jeffrey Sidewater, co-chair of the School Nutrition Association of Connecticut, said the state doesn’t need to study the issue. He said when the state stopped funding it at the beginning of this school year they quickly learned that students who qualified for free or reduced lunch were not taking it because of the associated stigma.
He said if the legislature thought it was enough to extend it for the rest of this school year then why shouldn’t it be extended for next year?
“We don’t ask a parent to pay for transportation or Chrome books, why should we be asking them for meals?” Sidewater said.
Rep. Antonio Felipe, D-Bridgeport, said he thinks it flies in the face of equity if all school districts, regardless of their ability to pay, get funding for free lunches. He said the wealthier districts should make meals available to their students at their own cost.
Rep. Robyn Porter, a Democrat from New Haven, disagreed.
“I do believe all kids should be eating for free,” Porter said. “We don’t charge them for books, we don’t charge them for supplies, we shouldn’t be charging them to eat lunch.”
Lauren Zimmitti, first-grade teacher in East Hampton, said she’s seen what a difference it makes for students to have a nice healthy meal.
Zimmitti, who joined the public hearing with her first-grade class, said “when they’re hungry those students are not able to learn.”
James Williams, a member of the West Haven Republican Town Committee, said public schools are funded by taxpayer dollars and people who actually work are being taxed twice if they are packing a lunch for their children because they’re also contributing to the free and reduced lunch program.
“They should not have to worry about if they’re going to eat at lunchtime,” Williams said. “We have taxpayer money, please put that money to work.”
Sen. Cathy Osten, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, said they can’t afford to continue to fund the program and all the other worthy programs.
“No one is debating the policy. We have a lot of great policies here, but we can’t fund all of them,” Osten said.
The Children’s Committee already passed a bill that seeks to continue funding the program for all students regardless of economic status, but the bill debated Tuesday by the Appropriations Committee simply seeks to study the issue.
Based on the fiscal note for the legislation to fully fund the program the cost would be “significant” but it didn’t specify exactly how much.
Osten estimated the ballpark around $90 million a year that the state would need to lay out before it received federal reimbursement for part of the costs.
In February, the state agreed to spend between $50 and $60 million from the end of December through June to continue to fund the program.