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CT Advocates Turn to State Leaders for Help Ensuring Free School Meals

School lunches
School lunches. Photo credit: Christine Stuart, CTNewsJunkie.com (we-ha.com file photo)

Not sure federal legislation will pass in time, advocates are seeking state funding to extend school and summer meal waivers beyond the current school year.

By Julie Martin Banks, CTNewsJunkie.com

While Connecticut’s two U.S. Senators are supporting national legislation to extend school and summer meal waivers for children through September 2023, local leaders say they want state officials to provide supplemental funding to ensure students keep receiving free meals beyond the current school year in the event the federal bill doesn’t pass. 

Groups including End Hunger Connecticut! and the School Nutrition Association of Connecticut (SNACT) said they support the federal bill – titled ‘The Support Kids Not Red Tape Act ‘ – which would extend the school meal waivers from June 30, 2022 to September 30, 2023. 

However, Jeff Sidewater, food services program coordinator for the Capital Region Education Council, said the federal bill’s future – while it is receiving bipartisan support – is uncertain, and that Connecticut legislators should allocate supplemental funding now. 

“We need a plan B if this doesn’t go through,” Sidewater, who is also co-chair of SNACT’s Public Policy & Legislation Committee, said. 

SNACT says that, according to an analysis from the state Department of Education,  it would cost the state between $53 and $57 million to provide, through the end of the next school year, meals at no cost to students as part of the School Breakfast and Lunch Program at the federal reimbursement rate. Sidewater said that request amounts to less than 0.25 percent of the overall proposed state budget.

Sidewater points to Maine and California, where state legislatures allocated funding to provide free school meals to all students, starting with the 2022-23 school year. 

State advocacy groups said that more than 100 million meals have been served through Connecticut school nutrition programs since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States Department of Agriculture had passed federal nutrition waivers in 2020 to help aid families during the pandemic, but those waivers are set to expire June 30, 2022. 

“Over the past two years, summer meals sites have had grab and go options, served multiple meals at one time and allowed parents and guardians to pick up meals for their children,” said Katie Pahkovsky, community outreach coordinator and summer meals program manager at End Hunger Connecticut! “These changes addressed some of the barriers that typically make it harder for kids to participate in the summer meals program and would not have been possible without the waivers. Families will likely find it more challenging to access meals this summer if the waivers are not extended.” 

EHC! Interim Administrative Director Julieth Callejas submitted testimony to the legislature’s Education Committee in March, urging the legislature to allocate funds to help schools continue providing meals at no cost to families. She said families are still struggling, with many students and school administrators still grappling with the emotional and economic impact of the pandemic.

“School nutrition teams have asked for more time and support to better serve students next school year,” Callejas said in an email on Saturday. “We need to do everything we can to make sure this happens.”

According to SNACT representatives, without the waivers, school meal programs will have to charge parents at pre-pandemic meal prices. A family of four earning an income of $49,025 (gross) does not receive meal benefits. 

“This is before rent, before medical expenses, inflation costs,” Sidewater said. “This is going to affect the working poor quite a bit and put our programs out of business.”  

The legislature’s Appropriations Committee recently passed a $24.2 billion spending plan, which does not currently include this funding. 

Rep. Patricia Dilion, D-New Haven, said this is an issue she cares about, and hopes something can be worked out. 

“I think we have done a great job in trying to get people back on their feet, but the fact that we have a surplus right now, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves,” she said. “There is still a lot to be done.” 

Republished with permission from CTNewsJunkie.com, all rights reserved.

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