HARTFORD, Conn (WTNH) — Connecticut’s Department of Social Services matches the names of students in their system on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to school districts so kids can qualify for free lunch. But who is helping you if your family earns more than $36,000 a year and lives on the margins?
Supporters of this bill say hungry kids can’t learn. Opponents say, what about senior citizens on a fixed income? They need help too.
Lilly, a junior at Plainville Community Schools, used video testimony to implore lawmakers on the Children’s Committee of the General Assembly to fund school meals for all.
“When some kids were paying, and I was getting free and reduced, I never really wanted my friends to know,” Lilly said. “I didn’t want them to say, oh you know, ‘why do you get free lunch and I don’t.'”
Her family faces financial insecurity. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, families lined up for free grab-and-go lunches.
Forty percent of Plainville students are on the free and reduced lunch program, and they are not alone.
“We want all our kids to have access to the healthiest meals,” said Jen Bove, East Hampton School’s nutrition services director.
This school nutritionist shared handwritten letters from students in her district who can’t afford $3.35 for lunch every day.
“I can’t bring that much food from home,” one student wrote. “It’s also not really healthy, and I don’t want my parents to pay so much for school lunch every day.”
“When full-pay students stop buying school lunch, the kids who need it the most also stop getting lunch,” Bove said. “They choose to go hungry because they don’t want to be stigmatized.”
Though not under her purview, Sara Eagan, Connecticut’s Child Advocate, testified in favor of free lunches.
“School may be the only place they [students] can access food,” Eagan said.
Sadly, she said kids pay the price, adding that wealthy students are paying for poor students by passing their meal cards out of desperation.
Lawmakers are expected to vote this week on an emergency certified bill to fund free lunches through June, which would cost an estimated $40 million.
State Sen. Ceci Maher, the Democratic co-chair of the Children’s Committee, supports the measure.
“We need to ensure that our children, our most precious resource, are fed,” Maher said.
Opponents say they don’t want any child to go hungry, but the estimated $90 million price tag is unaffordable for the state.
State Rep. Anne Dauphinaius, one of the Republicans on the Children’s Committee, sees it like this.
“We don’t want seniors to go hungry,” Dauphinaius said. “We aren’t giving out or passing out free lunches to seniors or doing other things that would help our constituents that are in tough times.”
A dozen states are looking to pass similar free lunch bills. California and Maine already have free lunch programs. Whether the underlying bill to fund school lunches permanently will have the votes is unclear.