Pandemic-era free school lunches ending for most Connecticut students

Free lunches are ending in most school systems because federal pandemic waivers expired and state funds are now running out.

John Craven

Dec 19, 2022, 11:03 PM

Updated 573 days ago


Students across Connecticut are getting an unwelcome Christmas present. Free lunches are ending in most school systems because federal pandemic waivers expired and state funds are now running out.
School meals have been free since March 2020 when Congress waived income eligibility requirements for the National School Lunch Program. Those waivers expired this summer, but state lawmakers pitched in $30 million of American Rescue Plan funding to keep the program going a few extra months.
That state funding has now run out for most school systems. Some districts have already ended free meals, and are reporting a significant drop in students getting fed at school.
"When we see that there are less meals served, then we're also going to see it in the classroom. We're going to see it in the way the kids are behaving,” said Lucy Nolan, policy director for End Hunger Connecticut.
Not everyone is affected. All students will keep getting free meals in lower-income school districts like Bridgeport, Norwalk and Torrington – as well as some individual schools in Stratford and Greenwich. Those districts qualify under a separate federal program called Community Eligibility Provision.
Some school systems, like Fairfield are covering the cost of free lunches through the end of the school year. Others, like Milford, are scrambling to get kids signed-up for federal assistance, but few families in Connecticut qualify. A family of four can't earn more than $36,075 per year. For reduced-price lunches, the income limit is $51,338.
"Connecticut – it is expensive to live here and the guidelines that we follow are national, so it's really important to try to get qualified if you can,” said Eileen Faustich, Milford Public Schools’ food services director.
Kids also qualify if they're enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or a federally-recognized Head Start program.
"We're trying to do a good job to communicate to parents – how to apply for SNAP, sharing all the information that we have,” said Faustich.
But advocates said many students are hesitant to apply for free lunches because of social stigma.
For parents like Seti Kane, whose daughter starts school next fall, raising kids is already costly.
"With all these things – inflation and everything that's so much more expensive,” she said. "So next year, I guess I have to pay for her lunch."
Some state lawmakers want to make free school lunches permanent.
"We know that a child cannot learn if the child is hungry,” said state Sen. Saud Anwar (D-South Windsor).
Neither Anwar nor Nolan have a price tag for statewide free school lunches yet. The 2023 legislative session begins on January 4. Even if lawmakers do approve the idea, it won't happen until next fall at the earliest.

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