Connecticut will dedicate $16 million in federal funding to expand access to free school meals for thousands of students, Gov. Ned Lamont announced during a Monday morning press conference.
Lamont appeared with advocates and other state officials in the cafeteria of the Charter Oak International Academy in West Hartford to describe how money from the American Rescue Plan Act will be used to cover the costs of feeding certain children during the 2023-2024 school year.
“We’ve got to make sure kids are ready to learn and that starts first thing in the day: a good meal, a good breakfast,” Lamont said. “No stigma. Come in and get that meal and that’s what this is all about.”
The investment announced Monday will impact two groups of students. The money will allow more than 177,000 kids who qualify for a reduced-cost breakfast program to receive that breakfast at no cost.
It will also fund free lunches for around 13,000 students who participate in a federal meal assistance initiative called National School Lunch Program in an estimated 128 Connecticut school districts.
Charter Oak Principal Georgina Rivera said that just under half of the school’s students participated in the reduced-cost meal programs. She said hunger can be an impediment to a child’s ability to learn.
“Many times I come across students and sometimes if they’re not in a happy and relaxed state, I ask them ‘what do you need?’ and so many times the answer is ‘I’m hungry and I need food,’” Rivera said. “It is so helpful for me and all of our staff members to be able to say ‘I can come down to the cafeteria and get you something to eat and not have to worry about funding.’”
The new funding follows a legislative session in which advocates unsuccessfully pushed state policymakers to dedicate enough money to pay for school lunches for all Connecticut students, and permanently fill a void left by a temporary U.S. Department of Agriculture program that had paid for the meals during the pandemic.
Monday’s announcement in Connecticut comes one week after legislators in Massachusetts passed a budget which would make permanent the pandemic-era program requiring free school meals for public school students there.
Some of the funding for the permanent program is slated to come from a recently adopted tax on Massachusetts households making more than $1 million per year, according to the State House News Service.
Lucy Nolan, policy director of End Hunger CT!, praised Massachusetts’ new policy, which she said was part of a broader trend toward free school meals in several states across the country.
Nolan said Connecticut advocates would meet next week to discuss a path forward and possibly plans to push for universal school meals during future sessions.
“There’s commitment from advocates to go forward, we just have to see where we’re at,” Nolan said. “I definitely wouldn’t close the door on it.”
Asked Monday whether Connecticut should move in the direction of universally free school meals, the governor said he would wait to see the impact of the new spending as well as what steps the federal government may take to close the remaining gap.
“Let’s see how successful this is and see what the budget looks like next year,” Lamont said.
Several legislators expressed interest in passing more substantial funding to cover school meals. Senate President Martin Looney told reporters he would like to look at moving in that direction when the legislature returns to Hartford next year.
“I’m pleased that we did this now and I agree that we should move more comprehensively toward free school meals for everyone,” Looney said.