Free school meals — including breakfast and lunch — are available again to all Cheshire public school students as March 1.
Mindful of food insecurity issues in Cheshire, the District had been providing access to those meals free of charge in recent years, something that was made possible largely by federal ARP (American Rescue Plan) funds. When funds from the federal program were depleted late last year, District reserves from the food service program were utilized to help bridge the gap for as long as possible.
That money ran out in mid-January. Now, the State of Connecticut has allocated $60 million in a second round of SMART (School Meals Assistance Revenue for Transition) funds. The money will be enough to sustain participating districts — including Cheshire — throughout the current school year.
The legislation funding the initiative — House Bill 6671 — unanimously passed both the House and the Senate before being signed by Governor Ned Lamont.
“The free school meals program that began at the beginning of the pandemic has helped ensure that thousands of young children have access to nutritious food, which is an essential component of learning, and has provided a financial break for many middle-class families,” said Gov. Ned Lamont, in an official release. “Although the federal emergency aid that initially supported this is coming to an end, funding it for the remainder of this school year just makes sense and I applaud everyone for coming together to get this approved.”
District Chief Operating Officer Vincent Masciana explained that “all students will be able to take advantage of the nutritionally-balanced meals offered at our schools and all families benefit from not having the financial burden of paying for their children’s meals.”
Without the meals program, approximately 15% of Cheshire students qualify for free meals under state guidelines. However, approximately 60% of Cheshire students take advantage of the free meals program, according to District data. Families with negative balances during the non-free period are still responsible for those bills.
State Representative Liz Linehan (D-103) explained that she has “advocated for a state funding stream that incorporates some municipal buy-in to raise the income limit for free and reduced lunches by utilizing the United Way’s ALICE metric. ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) focuses on middle class households who are employed, but struggling to make ends meet.”
“It is a more accurate picture of wealth disparity in communities like Cheshire, by taking into account, for example, the ratio of income to cost of housing within a given community,” she continued. “Using this metric would allow those who actually need the help receive a free or reduced lunch without superfluous state funding to cover families who can afford to pay for their children’s meals. This is a smarter way of assessing need, and would be good for children, families, and taxpayers.”
Districts do not receive a “fixed portion” of the funds, Masciana stated, but rather are reimbursed for meals provided. “There is, however, enough funding in that $60 million to ensure that all student meals will be free through the end of this school year, which is when this new program ends,” he added.
Masciana points out that “the food service program in Cheshire is financially independent of the school budget and is managed to be self-sufficient, meaning that the revenue collected (including SMART Funds) pays for the food sold and related labor and operating costs.”
Per Masciana, “A free meal consists of what the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) considers to be a complete meal with all the components offered for breakfast, namely grain, fruit, and milk, and for lunch a meat/meat alternative, grain, fruit, vegetable, and milk.” It does not include items purchased a la carte.
Linehan added that she “was proud to support continuing free school lunches for the remainder of the year. I was especially glad we did after a 9-year-old from Cheshire talked to me at the Capitol and told me that it will eliminate a lot of stress for her single mom. It is a moral obligation of the legislature to help ensure that no child is food insecure.”
“As the co-chair of the Committee on Children, we recently passed legislation out of Committee which would continue the program year after year,” she added.