Cafeteria workers Dawn Dumond Strong, of East Hampton, and Barbars Praight, or Milford, serve up free lunches at the Capitol Wednesday. The event was part of an effort by School Meals 4 All CT to convince lawmakers to fund universal school lunches in the budget. Credit: Mike Savino photo

HARTFORD, CT (Updated 5:30 p.m.) – School cafeteria workers made a push for universal free lunches Wednesday, urging lawmakers to include the funding in the two-year budget. 

All students, even those who previously would not have qualified, can get school lunch for free thanks to federal funding. But that’s set to expire next year unless the legislature includes more money in the budget. 

“We can throw money at our schools but unless kids are fed, it’s not going to make a difference,” Lucy Nolan, coordinator with School Meals 4 All CT, said Wednesday at the Capitol. 

Nolan estimates it would cost between $70 million and $90 million in additional funding to continue universal free lunches. 

Democrats leaders in the House of Representatives said that number is too much. House Speaker Matt Ritter said, as of right now, the draft budget will provide another $8.5 million each of the next two years thanks to unused American Rescue Plan Act funding. 

But as far as anything more, “There was not money for that,” Ritter told reporters Wednesday. “We’ve had to say for many things ‘there wasn’t money for that.’”

Ritter also remained adamant that he thinks lawmakers will reach a deal on a budget in the coming days. School cafeteria workers hope there’s still time to get more funding. 

Wednesday some workers served up free lunches to lawmakers and others at the Capitol, hoping to show them the money is worth it. 

The federal government was funding universal lunches in all schools as a form of pandemic relief. When that expired, lawmakers in February agreed to use ARPA money to continue with universal lunches through the end of the school year. 

Schools saw a huge increase in students getting school lunches, in part because the expansion removed any stigmas. Cafeteria workers said that when free lunches are only given to students from households that meet certain income requirements, some students have opted not to take them.

“It’s definitely a stigma, but the kids just were not eating,” Barbara Praight, a food service worker in Milford, said. 

Ritter said lawmakers have to balance other competing interests and demands while crafting the budget, and schools would get a combined $8.5 million.

A spokesperson for School Meals 4 All CT said cafeteria workers Tuesday suggested the money be used instead to offer universal breakfasts as a way to help all students.

Lawmakers initially wanted to raise the eligibility requirements for free school lunch, but Nolan said the additional money wouldn’t do much.

Nolan also said the funding for free school lunches isn’t the only form of aid set to stop at the end of the school year. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also been providing schools with 15 cents per breakfast and 40 cents per lunch served. 

That, too, is set to expire at the end of the month, and school cafeterias will have to figure out how they’re going to buy food as inflation continues to drive up prices. 

“School food services, they’re a closed loop,” Nolan said, meaning cafeteria’s typically have to balance their own budgets. 

Praight said that will make it harder to provide lunches that meet nutritional requirements. It would also make it harder to hire staff. 

“We’re shorthanded as it is,” said Praight, who turns 70 in August. “It might be time to bring somebody younger in. I don’t know.”