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CT lawmakers should expand free school meals to reduce stigma, anti-hunger advocates say

FILE - In this Thursday, May 4, 2017 file photo, a third-grader punches in her student identification to pay for a meal at Gonzales Community School in Santa Fe, N.M. The Trump administration is proposing a rollback of nutrition guidelines for federal school meals programs that had been promoted by Michelle Obama as part of her campaign to combat child obesity. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee, file)
Morgan Lee
FILE - In the upcoming state legislative session, advocates plan to push lawmakers to continue funding for expanded free school meals for students.

In the upcoming session of the state legislature, school nutrition directors and anti-hunger advocates plan to push lawmakers to continue funding for expanded free school meals for students.

Last year, the state set aside $16 million to provide free meals for more students, but that funding will run out at the end of this school year, unless lawmakers act.

Ashley Carl works in the Plainville school system, and represents a statewide organization of school nutrition staff, called School Nutrition Association of Connecticut, or SNACT. If free meals are not only given to low-income students, she said it reduces the stigma.

“I witnessed one student making fun of another student, because they qualified for free meals. And I could absolutely sense his embarrassment,” Carl said. “It is heartbreaking watching these students who chose not to eat because of the shame they feel receiving a free meal.”

Last year, lawmakers voted to provide free breakfasts to all students who take part in the school breakfast program, and free lunch to students who qualify for reduced-price lunches. Now, advocates say about 177,000 students get free breakfasts, who did not before.

Still, Carl said the program should do more to make sure students want to eat those free meals in front of their peers, based on what she observed in her district.

“There has been a concerning trend, with about a 10% decrease in free and reduced students participating in school lunch from last year until this year,” Carl said.

”Students who have a documented food insecurity are opting to not eat because of the stigma they feel,” Carl said.

Matt Dwyer is an editor, reporter and midday host for Connecticut Public's news department. He produces local news during All Things Considered.

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