Kids miss breakfast, state misses out on funding

Connecticut is missing out on millions of dollars in federal subsidies because too many of the state’s poorest children do not eat breakfast in school, state officials and anti-hunger advocates said Monday.

Among low-income children in the federal school lunch program, only 39 percent receive federally subsidized school breakfasts – one of the lowest figures in the nation, according to the Food Research and Action Center, a national anti-hunger organization.

Connecticut could qualify for an additional $7.1 million in federal funds by expanding the breakfast program and another $1.3 million by expanding a summer food program for low-income children, officials said.

“Let’s not leave a dime on the table,” U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, said at the Amazing Grace Food Pantry in Middletown, where she joined several state officials promoting legislation designed to ease hardships growing out of the nation’s long economic slump.

“Nothing we do in government . . . is as important as helping children get the food and resources they need to grow and thrive,” she said.

At the press conference, legislators and members of the Speaker’s Task Force on Children in the Recession urged support for a comprehensive state bill dealing with issues such as homelessness, child care and other issues, including hunger. The bill would require the state to promote greater participation in federally subsidized food programs, including the school breakfast program.

As the economy worsened, the number of children taking part in the federal free and reduced price lunch program rose steadily over the past two years, now reaching more than one of every three children in Connecticut, state figures show.

Across the nation, 86 percent of schools in the federal school lunch program also provide federally subsidized breakfasts, but in Connecticut the figure is 52 percent – by far the lowest percentage among the 50 states, the Food Research and Action Center says.

“It’s low, no doubt about it,” said Therese Dandeneau, a specialist in child nutrition at the State Department of Education. “We’d love to see an increase in participation.”

Some communities have been reluctant to start programs because of logistical problems such as rearranging busing schedules or because of the misconception that the programs are open only to low-income children, she said. Federal reimbursements are based on family income, but any child can take part.

“It’s a wonderful program. We just have to grow participation,” said House Speaker Christopher Donavan, D-Meriden, one of several state legislators at Monday’s press conference.

The state education department, along with various advocacy groups, formed a team last year to assist schools to develop breakfast programs.

In Southington, school officials started breakfast programs at three elementary schools this year and plan to expand the programs to all eight of the district’s elementary schools next fall, said Superintendent of Schools Joseph Erardi. In addition to federal reimbursement for the meals, the district gets help from local foundations to cover the program’s operating costs, he said.

The program started, he said, because of “the escalating number of students, parents and families in need in this community.”

Some towns have seen an increase in participation in summer nutrition programs, said Lucy Nolan, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut.

In Middletown, a summer food program now reaches about 900 children, up from 100 children three years ago, she said.