Many students continue to benefit from extended free breakfast programs in local schools, but some school systems report being unable to offer the program at every school.
Wallingford Public Schools currently offer breakfast in the elementary schools and high schools, with the hopes of bringing breakfast back to the middle schools sometime this academic year.
Tammy Raccio, chair of the Wallingford Board of Education, said for a period of time during the pandemic, the middle schools offered grab and go breakfasts to its students. This was before the district slowly started the program at the elementary schools.
The middle schools “were the first schools (between elementary and middle) to pilot the expanding breakfast program,” Raccio said.
Fran Thompson, assistant superintendent for personnel, said the district offered breakfast at the middle schools during the pandemic when half of the school population was in the building at a time.
“During the pandemic, the middle school schedule had half the school in at a time, so the delivery of it and just the staffing of it allowed it to happen, so now we have to staff it up, which we’re planning on doing and figuring out a way to deliver it and not have it impact any of our instructional time, which right now we’re working with our middle school administrators and our food service team at both middle schools to deliver breakfast for our kids,” Thompson said.
James Bondi, food services director, said that the district is hoping to start the program back up at the middle schools, but is currently facing some challenges.
“The food service operations are in the midst of planning for the introduction of school breakfast at Dag and Moran Middle Schools,” Bondi said. “However, as the middle schools are distinctive in the complexities of their physical layout and the amount of students in each school versus the anticipated service model, we are facing some unique challenges that we are working on overcoming. We hope to have solutions to the issues, and get school breakfast at the middle schools up and running in a timely manner.”
Wallingford’s free breakfast program is funded by the School Meals Assistance Revenue for Transition (SMART) program. The state of Connecticut distributed $30 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to school districts to allow for them to continue to offer free meals to all students until the funding runs out.
Wallingford has received $541,793. As of the Oct. 11 board of education operations committee meeting, Bondi said that in September, the district used $196,310.13 of the SMARTfunds. Between breakfast and lunch, 98,941 meals were served last month, making for the average participation in the meal program 60.2%.
There were 2,678 paid breakfast meals served in September. The number of reduced price breakfast meals served was 211.
Raccio points out that food insecurity has increased. More students in 2020 were eligible for free or reduced-price meals than in 2000, she said. In 2020, 32.6% of the Wallingford Public School students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, while in 2000, the percentage was 7.3%, according to the state Department of Education.
“It's a huge change in our community,” Raccio said.
Therefore, Raccio said the district needs to find solutions, primarily to staffing issues, to be able to bring the breakfast program to the middle schools.
“Having a breakfast program in our elementary and middle schools addresses the food insecurity issue we have in our community,” Raccio said.
Meriden Public Schools has been offering free breakfast at all of the schools — elementary, middle and high schools — since 2015 or 2016, said Susan Maffe, director of food and nutrition services. Breakfast programs are funded through grants from the Walmart Foundation and the American Association of School Administrators.
Meals for all students in Meriden Public Schools are free under the Community Eligibility Provision of the National School Lunch Program established in 2010.
The AASA “gave us this money to implement breakfast in a variety of different ways in the district, so some examples are all the kids used to have to go to the cafeteria to get breakfast and it might be inconvenient and not close to the bus or Uber or whatever so kids just wouldn’t go,” Maffe said. “So some of the things that (AASA) found to be successful and they helped fund for us is what we called grab and go carts so we have carts in strategic areas in the building so a student doesn't have to go to the cafeteria.”
Maffe said all students are allowed to eat in the classroom and there are more food choices in the middle and high school levels.
“Those kids are more able to make a choice independently and quickly, so if you can imagine 200 elementary school students trying to pick a breakfast and put their number in the PIN pad in 10 minutes or less, that line has got to be moving,” Maffe said.
Both Platt and Maloney high schools have five reimbursable vending machines in different locations throughout the buildings. Students are able to use the machines up until 10 a.m, so if they are not hungry when breakfast is initially served, they have time to be able to pick something up on their way to class.
“They can go to one of these vending machines and vend themselves a breakfast,” Maffe said. “... Some are in the hallways, some are in the cafeteria. They are in key locations throughout the building.”
In 2020, 77.1% of Meriden Public School students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals. In 2000, this percentage was 47%. Despite this increase in percentage, Maffe has noticed the breakfast program is not as popular as it once was.
Breakfast participation has fallen almost 20% from pre-pandemic participation to post-pandemic participation. The lowest participation is at the high schools, even with the vending machines being available at 10 a.m.
“The number of meals that we serve pre-pandemic compared to post-pandemic, they are significantly different,” Maffe said. “... As many times as we say it, we’re not even sure that everybody recognizes that breakfast is free in all of our schools.”
Cheshire and Southington
Cheshire Public Schools are also offering free breakfast at all of the district’s schools, funded by the SMART program. Cheshire schools have received $687,771. Erica Biagetti said that once the funding runs out, families who are not eligible for free and reduced-price meals will have to start paying again.
In 2020, 15.7% of Cheshire students were eligible for free and reduced-price meals. In 2000, this percentage was 2.1%. Biagetti said that the free and reduced program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In August, Biagetti told the Record-Journal that if families who are eligible for free and reduced meals fill out their applications as soon as possible, the district can make the SMART funds last longer for families who do not qualify for free and reduced meals.
“We are working hard to make sure that families who do qualify understand that if they do fill out their applications and they do receive the USDA funding, then that's going to be able to help us help families who do not qualify longer,” Biagetti said in August.
However, Biagetti said that she has seen an increase in participants in the program.
“We have seen an increase in breakfast participation with meals being available at no charge,” Biagetti said.
Nya Welinsky, school food service director for Southington Public Schools, said that while the district has offered a breakfast program for many years, it has evolved over the years, especially due to the pandemic.
“It has changed a lot through the past couple years through the pandemic where school closed and now we’re kind of getting back to normal where it’s grab and go...” Welinsky said.
The breakfast program is available at all schools, free of charge. It is funded through the SMART program. Southington was granted $633,164 and Welinsky estimates that the funds will run out sometime in early December.
“We are going to look to do the 30 days’ notice for the community and start to probably do some press releases at the end of the month, beginning of November,” Welinsky said. “... We encourage families now to fill out the free and reduced application in advance because the funding will end.”
Welinsky said that it has been great being able to “take a burden off families” when it comes to offering free meals.
“We’re excited that we were able to start the school year off and offer two meals per student at no cost,” Welinsky said.
In 2020, Southington had 24% of its student population eligible for free or reduced-price meals. In 2000, the number was 6.2%.
Welinsky said the district has seen a good number of students participating in the meal program as it has offered the Seamless Summer Option, which combines features of the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program and the Summer Food Service Program.
According to CT.gov, it reduces paperwork and administrative burden by making it easier for schools to feed students from low-income areas during the summer vacation period.
“We have many many more students participating because it’s free of charge,” Welinsky said.