Free school meals could run through next school year

Claire Bessette, The Day, New London, Conn.
·4 min read

May 3—Throughout the school year, students throughout the region have been able to grab school breakfast and lunch without needing to reach into their pockets for a dining card or punching in a code number into the school cafeteria register.

Free school meals, whether in person or take-out during remote learning, have been a key part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's COVID-19 recovery program. The federal agency will now extend that program through the 2021-22 school year as part of what the agency called a suite of waivers on school meal requirements. The waivers include allowing flexibility to schools for lunch times and locations and extending some pandemic safety protocols.

As they await further guidance on how the federal waivers will apply, officials in several local school districts said Monday they already are excited to extend free school meals to all students next year. Without the waiver, students in families earning up to 130% of the federal poverty level would qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

Throughout the pandemic, school districts quickly adjusted and provided free take-out meals to families, with funding through the USDA. The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program on April 20 announced waivers that would extend the free school meals for all students to states and districts that agree to participate.

State Department of Education spokesman Peter Yazbak said the state has accepted the waivers for Connecticut, which will allow schools to opt in and continue serving free school meals to any student age 18 and younger.

The USDA held an online conference with state education agencies on Thursday, Yazbak said, to provide guidance on the waivers. The state is awaiting further federal guidance to pass along to the local school districts. He said it is too early to say how many Connecticut school districts will participate.

"We're excited about it," said Dianne Houlihan, director of school dining and nutrition services for the Waterford school system. "What this has done for kids in our district and everywhere is it has increased breakfast participation."

Houlihan said many students had come to school without breakfast in the past and were not in the habit of getting breakfast at school, even this year, when all meals are free.

During National School Breakfast Week March 8-12, Waterford schools ran a contest offering the one class in each school with the highest breakfast participation the chance for a pizza lunch party. In some schools, breakfast participation jumped from 28 participants to 200, and the habit stayed after the contest ended, Houlihan said.

Participation in hot school lunches also has increased, Houlihan said. Only 14% of Waterford students qualified for free or reduced-price school meals, so some students who qualified for them were hesitant to participate, perhaps fearing the stigma of revealing their low-income status. That's gone with everyone receiving free meals, she said.

Local districts and schools with high levels of qualifying students already offered universal free school meals prior to the pandemic and federal waiver, including the Norwich and New London school districts and three Groton schools — Catherine Kolnaski and Claude Chester elementary schools and Groton Middle School — said Ernie Koschmieder, Groton school food services director.

Koschmieder predicted all school districts in Connecticut will accept the free school meals option once the guidelines are released.

"It's great for the families, great for the kids," he said.

About 49% of Groton students districtwide would qualify for the federal free or reduced priced meals under the previous requirements. Groton has been gradually increasing in-person school this spring, with the final group starting Wednesday. The district put out frequent reminders, including automated phone calls, promoting the free take-out meals.

Montville Superintendent Laurie Pallin said even with free school meals offered this year, the district still is urging families to fill out the applications to qualify for the free meals and hopes to offer incentives to families to provide the information.

"We are still awaiting an announcement from the state of Connecticut regarding the state's participation in this federal program," Pallin said. "Once we receive that, it would be our intention to extend free meals for all students next year."

Preston Superintendent Roy Seitsinger said about a third of Preston students would qualify for free or reduced-priced school meals. He too said the district keeps track of the qualifications for other purposes, such as monitoring students' well being and offering support to families.

Preston already has decided to accept the extension of free school meals next year.

"This is part of the pandemic recovery," Seitsinger said.

c.bessette@theday.com