Legislature hopes to expand school breakfasts for low-income students

With Connecticut ranking near the bottom among states in providing breakfast to low-income students, lawmakers are holding out a $600,000 carrot to entice districts to launch or maintain their breakfast programs.

“School districts are really feeling the pinch,” said Beth Gankofskie, director of food services at Mansfield Public Schools, which serves about 600 students breakfast each day. “Costs have gone up. The truth about the breakfast program is the costs have never been covered.”


Students at Dodd Middle School in Cheshire get breakfast

Although 1,101 schools across the state offered free or reduced-price lunch last school year, according to the School Research and Action Center, only 643 offered breakfast–the lowest proportion in the nation.  Only 39 percent of the students in the federally subsidized School Lunch Program also participate in the school breakfast program, according to the FRAC, a national anti-hunger organization.

Only about 500 of the schools that do provide breakfasts are eligible for state subsidies. The budget bill that is expected to be approved by lawmakers this week provides the funding to expand state assistance for school breakfasts to an additional 189 schools.

“That could be a great help to boosting our participation,” said Cheryl Resha, the director of Child Nutrition Programs at the State Department of Education.

“It opens the universe of school breakfast reimbursements to more schools. But that doesn’t mean they have to, it just affords more schools the opportunity,” said Brian Mahoney, the chief financial officer for the SDE.

Under current law, students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches also are eligible for breakfast, but only schools in which 80 percent of students meet the lunch eligibility standards are required to provide breakfast. Schools that have more than 40 percent of students enrolled in subsidized lunch programs can also receive state assistance for breakfasts.

The new bill lowers that threshold to allow schools with just 20 percent of students eligible for subsidized lunches to receive state and federal breakfast reimbursements.

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Roy Occiogrosso, a senior adviser to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. “There are things the governor feels responsible to do; feeding hungry children is one of those things.”

This increase in the number of schools eligible for funding is expected to increase the number of breakfasts served by at least 6 percent–from 10.9 million meals to 11.6 million meals served each year–estimates the legislature’s fiscal office.

“That’s a huge leap,” said Eileen Faustich, director of food services for Milford Public Schools and president of the School Nutrition Association of Connecticut. “This really would help us continue breakfast programs and even expand.”

Eight Milford schools currently provide school breakfast programs to about 7,500 students each day, and Faustich said she is hopeful this new pool of students and schools eligible for funding may lead to her district offering more low-income students at other schools breakfast.

“I will try to make it work in as many schools as I think we are able to,” she said. “Getting this additional funding will surely help.”

“Many districts are struggling to cover the costs,” said Madeleine C. Diker, a food nutrition specialist at Cheshire Public Schools, which serves about 200 students breakfast every school day. “That’s sad because breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

Schools are currently reimbursed 3 cents from the state and 3 cents from the federal government and a $3,000 annual block grant for offering breakfasts.

“Three cents may not seem like a lot, but it really adds up. That could be the difference between a school deciding to offer breakfast or not,” said Dawn Crayco, the deputy director of End Hunger Connecticut.