Ceci Maher

State Senator

Ceci Maher

Deputy President Pro Tempore

Working Together For Our Communities

February 7, 2023

Senators Maher and Anwar Support Free School Lunch Legislation As It Receives Public Hearing In Children’s Committee

Today, as legislation that would expand school meal programs to ensure no student goes hungry received a public hearing in the Children’s Committee, State Senator Ceci Maher (D-Wilton), Senate Chair of the Children’s Committee, and State Senator Saud Anwar (D-South Windsor), Senate Chair of the Public Health Committee and former Chair of the Children’s Committee, gave the bill their support. The bill in question would expand school meal programs for all students, with funding through State Board of Education grants, and is a response to the end of federal programs that provided universal K-12 meals during the COVID-19 pandemic and ended in late 2022.

“”One in six children in the United States struggles with hunger, and one in eight in Connecticut,” said Sen. Maher. “For the last nearly three years, one of the few silver linings of the pandemic was federal policies making sure every student learning wasn’t doing so on an empty stomach. With those programs gone, countless families and students are struggling. But those programs also proved we can do this, and we can do it in a way that protects students and families. I’m grateful for the testimony from so many supporters of this bill and hope to see this bill become law.”

“Studies show that children at risk of hunger are more likely to experience developmental issues. They’re more likely to have lower math scores, more likely to repeat a grade. Hungry children can’t properly learn. Young children who experience food insecurity early in life are more likely to lag behind their peers in school,” said Sen. Anwar. “This isn’t just a crisis of hunger on its own but an alarming threat that could hamper Connecticut children’s long-term development. We need to take strides to support public health, our children and our families, too many of which are struggling today. Free school lunches will provide benefits in the short- and long-terms alike.”

Senate Bill 929, “An Act Expanding School Meal Programs To Provide Free School Meals To All Students,” seeks to provide free school meals to all students, doing so by creating grants for schools and school boards through the State Board of Education. Sens. Maher and Anwar in January stood with school officials from across the state to advocate for free student lunches upon the ending of federal funding support in late 2022.

Written testimony provided to the Children’s Committee prior to Tuesday’s public hearing was universally supportive of Senate Bill 929, with a wide-ranging show of support from parents, teachers, school officials and a number of organizational leaders. Their reasons for support were numerous; Karen Asetta, school business manager for East Hampton Public Schools, said the end of school lunch support may drop student participation in East Hampton school lunch programs by as much as 40%, requiring layoffs among workers who remained in schools during the worst conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic to feed hungry students. Abby Kassman-Harned, director of food and nutrition services for Tolland Public Schools, noted that students in school cafeterias are now foregoing free meals, despite qualifying for them, due to stigma.

Lisa Cacace, food service manager for Cromwell High School, said the end of “free” lunches led to a drop of almost 20% of students receiving lunch and that “as the students come through the line almost all of them ask how much money they do or don’t have. They should not be worried about this. They should be receiving a balanced meal and focus on learning.”

Paul Sworkin, a pediatrician and Executive Vice President for Child Community Health at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, said that nearly 40% of families the hospital system screens experience food insecurity. “As a developmental-behavioral pediatrician I can assure you that kids cannot learn to their fullest potential if they are hungry,” Sworkin said. “By making no-cost school lunch available to all children, we can destigmatize free school lunch and best of all, help ensure that hunger does not harm any child’s readiness to learn during the school day.”

“Nearly 92,000 children, or 12.6%, in Connecticut are food insecure with thousands more in households that are just getting by,” said Jason Jakubowski, President and CEO of Connecticut Foodshare. “Of those 92,000 children, 25% of them do not qualify for government assistance.” He noted that CT Foodshare saw a “significant increase” in attendance at food pantries when school meal programs started. “We, as a society, have both the resources and the ability to feed our school children – and if the federal government will no longer cover the expense of school meals, then we (as a state) need to,” Jakubowski said.