Lawmakers restore free school meals




HARTFORD — Legislators voted Feb. 9 to make a $60 million emergency appropriation to resume free school meals for the rest of the current school year.

School districts have run through $30 million in federal coronavirus relief funds that the General Assembly budgeted to continue free meals for students for the 2022-23 school year.

With the loss of funding, many districts have returned to the state’s meal-funding programs, including following income limits for no-cost and reduced-cost meals.

Currently, a family of four qualifies for free meals if their pre-tax income is less than $36,075, or discounted meals if family income is less than $51,338.

The House and Senate unanimously approved a budget-related bill Thursday that included the $60 million in supplemental funding to resume free meals.

“You cannot tell a hungry child I fed you yesterday,” said Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, Senate chairman of the Committee on Children.

The federal government had subsidized free school meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the federal funding was not renewed. Now, the legislature and Gov. Ned Lamont are weighing next steps.

The Committee on Children heard testimony Tuesday on a Senate bill proposing to provide free school meals to all students. The legislation would cover the costs through state grants.

Democratic legislators have proposed five more bills to require schools to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students regardless of family income. All were referred to the Education Committee.

But Lamont included no funding for a universal school meal program in the two-year, $50.5 billion budget plan he has proposed.

While there is disagreement over the state paying for free student meals, there is an emerging bipartisan consensus that wealthier school districts should be required to pick up some or all of the costs of providing free meals to their students.

“I don’t think anybody has a problem funding school lunches for those municipalities where there is a real need,” said Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, the ranking House member of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee. “No one wants children to be at school hungry, but given our limited resources, where is this money best spent to make families and children well?”

Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said some districts have the ability to pay and there are competing spending needs to be weighed.

“You can look at the poverty rates of any of those communities and come to a pretty quick determination if they could afford to pay for it locally,” said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford.

House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, also questioned the need to continue universal free meals.

“I think we have to have a broader conversation because many of our districts that participated in the program did not come to us and say extend this program. So, is there really a need or is this just political fodder? That’s what we need to hammer out.”

Candelora said he did not believe extending the free school meals program beyond June should be a legislative priority.

“We’ll figure it out,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. “We know we have enough one-time revenue to do it this fiscal year and then we have to have a conversation going forward.”