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Some Connecticut lawmakers want to make free lunches at public schools permanent

Angel of Edgewood, a local non-profit, hosts the 2nd Annual Back to School Extravaganza
Greg Miller
/
Connecticut Public
Attendees of Angel of Edgewood's Back to School Extravaganza pick up fresh produce at the start of this school year. The event, sponsored by the Commission on Women, Children, Seniors, Equity, and Opportunity and the Hispanic Federation Foundation, aimed to provide Hartford families with back-to-school supplies, food, clothing and basic necessities to set them up for success at the start of school.

Many Connecticut school districts have run out of federal funding that allowed them to provide free school lunches to all students earlier in the pandemic. The state Senate has proposed a bill to make free lunches permanent, and in the meantime, some lawmakers are pushing for emergency funding to keep lunches free through the end of the school year.

Legislators joined food security advocates and school officials Thursday, Jan. 12, for a news briefing about the issue. Sen. Saud Anwar, D-East Hartford, said the state legislature and Democratic Governor Ned Lamont are working together to pass a bill that would permanently fund school lunches for all students, regardless of income.

“I have yet to see any of my colleagues say, ‘This is a bad idea,’” Anwar said. “Everyone stepped forward and said, ‘This is our responsibility.’”

In the meantime, Anwar said, legislators are pushing for emergency funding that would float this program through the end of the school year. Connecticut had allocated $30 million in American Rescue Plan funding for school lunches last year, which has since run out.

School officials say the rising costs of food and paper products are big contributors to funding running out.

“Food prices going up is real,” said Jen Bove, nutrition services director for the East Hampton public school district. Bove said the price she paid for a crate of lettuce had more than tripled in recent weeks.

Families who meet income requirements can still receive the same free or reduced-price lunches under the National School Lunch Program. But Bove said families living slightly above this income level are still struggling.

“I’ve been getting calls from our nurses telling me that they’ve had a lot more students coming in asking for snacks and reporting to [them] that they’re hungry,” Bove said.

Bove said some schools have resorted to putting out communal bowls where students with extra food can leave part of their lunch for other students.

Dr. Molly Markowitz, chair of the Yale School of Medicine Pediatrics Advocacy Committee, spoke at the briefing about the importance of proper nutrition for children.

“Children who experience food insecurity are at increased risk of multiple negative health outcomes,” Markowitz said. “[They] have impaired learning in school, are at increased risk of mental delays and are more likely to experience emotional and behavioral challenges.”

Markowitz also pointed out that these problems affect parents and teachers as well.

Bove confirmed that school administrators have reported a noticeable rise in behavioral problems among children who aren’t getting lunches anymore.

Anwar said his colleagues are aiming to pass emergency funding by the end of January.

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