Cafeteria workers hand out school lunches to lawmakers. Credit: Mike Savino photo

Universal school lunches will come to a halt at the end of the school year, but districts will be able to get grants next year to continue to offer free lunches for students from households earning twice the federal poverty limit. 

The upcoming budget includes $16 million, through the Department of Education, to continue offering the free lunches to households earning up to 200% of the federal poverty limit. 

Districts have been able to offer universal thanks to federal pandemic relief funding, but that expires at the end of the school year. 

“Our ultimate goal is to get to the point where we’re having school meals broadly, participating with every student,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee. 

Advocates had been asking for the state to fund universal free lunches, estimating the cost would be between $70 million and $90 million. 

Prior to pandemic relief aid, the state would get a grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for free meals.

School districts that participate in the federal School Lunch Program could apply for funding for free meals, with the state Department of Education calculating reimbursements based on the number of districts participating and the number of students covered. 

Next school year, all districts will be able to get reimbursement for any student from a household that earns no more than 200% of the federal poverty limit. The money can also be used to offer breakfast or over feedings. 

School Meals 4 All CT Coordinator Lucy Nolan said she’s “grateful (lawmakers) put the money in the budget” to offer free meals to some. 

She worried, though, that some parents won’t apply for the free meals or that districts will decide it’s not worth the effort to seek reimbursement. 

“One of the beautiful things about universal school meals — it’s just more equitable,” Nolan said. 

She said some cafeteria workers have reported seeing students who are eligible not apply for free meals because of the stigma associated with income-based benefits. 

Some districts, meanwhile, will have to upgrade their point-of-sale software and decide the reimbursement isn’t enough to justify the expense. School cafeteria programs have to balance their own budgets. 

Nolan was also concerned that the funding was only allocated for the first year of the two-year budget. 

Osten said the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates this is enough to cover the cost for both years. 

Lawmakers, though, decided to put all of the money into the first year to make sure the Education Department has enough money to get the program going. 

“We put it all in year one to make sure we have enough for year one and we’ll reevaluate come back next February to see where we are,” Osten said. 

Lawmakers used $16 million in unused federal American Rescue Plan Act money to kickstart the benefit. 

Osten also noted the legislature took additional steps in a comprehensive education bill to try and create a “sustainable system” for free school lunches. 

This includes using unspent funds in the Department of Agriculture’s Connecticut Grown Program to reimburse schools that purchase meat, produce and other qualifying foods from local farms. 

In the meantime, Nolan thinks districts will be more inclined to use the funding for breakfasts, allowing them to provide lower cost meals to more students. 

She also expects her group to continue pushing to expand the program to cover all students, pointing to research that students tend to perform and behavior better in school when they have access to meals.