By Lorraine Connelly
We’ve all heard the adage, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” While the origins of this post-WWII expression are a bit murky (economist Milton Friedman published a book decades later with this same title), the economic theory behind it is clear enough: all goods and services provided must be paid for by someone. In matters of public policy, that is most likely the taxpayer.
During COVID, federal funds helped buy free lunches for all public school students. That program was set to expire at the end of the school year last June until, at the eleventh-hour, President Biden signed a gap measure, the Keep Kids Fed Act, extending partial school meal subsidies through the next school year.
Earlier this fall, most Connecticut school districts that received part of the state’s $30 million in ARPA funding for free school meals indicated that this money would be exhausted by December or January. That funding has now run out. As of December 1st, Wallingford Schools stopped offering free meals to all students. Students who did not meet eligibility requirements prior to the expiration of the free meal program resumed paying for their meals. Most would agree that food insecurity is not the best way to start off the holiday season or the New Year for that matter.
Superintendent Danielle Bellizzi notes that Wallingford has been proactive in addressing food insecurity issues, saying, “We have employed the use of ParentSquare, our parent communication platform, emailed our parents directly, and put information in our school-based newsletters. Additionally, and as required by law, all families eligible for free or reduced-priced meals received a letter. We answered all parent inquiries in a timely manner, working closely with those who needed assistance in completing and submitting the free and reduced meal applications.”
According to Bellizzi, 31.5% of Wallingford students are currently eligible for free or reduced-priced meals under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a federally assisted meal program operating under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Also, 1,254 students receive state benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Medicaid) which automatically qualifies them for free school meals.
What’s changed? During the pandemic, the federal government provided universal free school lunches to all children — not just those from the poorest homes. Now, only students with a family income of 185% of the poverty level (for a family of four that is $51,338), or below, will qualify.
Some states, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Nevada, have extended universal free school lunch through the 2022-23 school year. In 2021, Maine and California passed bills making universal free school lunch permanent. And last fall Colorado joined their ranks by passing The Healthy School Meals for All initiative providing access to free meals for all of Colorado’s public school students. Taxes will be raised for the top 2 percent of income earners – those with incomes over $300,000 — to finance school meal programs. This ballot initiative is expected to raise $100 million a year in Colorado.
With escalating prices of food and fertilizer, and continuing disruptions in the supply chain, schools are responding by raising meal prices. Those students who no longer qualify for free meals will be expected to pay more than they did before the pandemic. The federal government does reimburse schools a portion of each meal’s cost, but as Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of Media Relations at the School Nutrition Association, recently told NPR, “For about what you’d pay for a latte, schools are expected to put together a meal that has milk and fruits and vegetables, protein and grain. The pandemic and the aftereffects of the supply chain and labor challenges that the programs are facing have just blown up the model.”
State Rep. Mary Mushinsky of the 85th district has requested information from the Office of Fiscal Analysis regarding an estimate of what it would cost to provide breakfast and lunch for all, noting, “Breakfast only would be a much cheaper option.” In the meantime, she will be filing a bill at the request of her constituents to restore free breakfasts for those who no longer qualify.
A 2021 poll by Data For Progress found that 74% of Americans support making universal free school meals permanent nationwide. In 2022, 56.7% of Coloradans voted to fund free school meals for all. U.S. News and World Report has ranked Connecticut eighth, and Colorado ninth among the top ten wealthiest states in our nation. Surely, at the price of a latte ($4.16), we too, should consider the possibility of offering a free lunch ($4.33) to every public school student. Nutritious school meals improve students’ social behaviors and academic performance. It’s incumbent upon Connecticut lawmakers to consider this issue in its next legislative session.
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and long-time Wallingford resident.