Thousands more children get free meals

Thousands more children are showing up for school each year in need of a free- or reduced-priced breakfast and lunch.

And while 28,008 more students over the last 10 years are now being fed at free or reduced rates during the regular school year, state officials are trying to also boost the number of children getting fed during the summer vacation months.

Their motto: All children eat free.

The only requirement to get a free meal at any of the more than 400 locations is that the children are 18 years old or younger.

“We want to make sure that every child in the state of Connecticut can have a good meal during the summer,” Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told a roomful of about 30 children eating breakfast for free at an elementary school in Hartford Monday.

In Hartford, there are 78 locations for children to get free breakfast. In Bridgeport, there are 23 locations. New Haven has 51 locations. (Find the closest free breakfast to you here.)

“We want kids to be able to eat during the summer and not have to depend on the food pantries for their meals,” said Lucy Nolan, the executive director of End Hunger Connecticut!, a statewide advocacy group.

Of the nearly 150,000 children from low-income families who received free- or reduced-price meals during the 2011-12 school year, only one-quarter would get meals from the federally funded program in the summer. This is one of the best rates in the nation, reports the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger group that advocates nationwide.

But officials want still more children getting fed over the summer.

“We need to do better,” said State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor.

State officials say getting these children in the door for breakfast is a great way to help keep students on track for when the school year begins again.

“It really keeps their mind going over the summer,” Nolan said, adding that while they are getting breakfast some type of education lesson is typically taking place.

Malloy said that students too often are showing up for the first day of school behind where they were academically on the last day of school the previous school year.

“We think that one of the reasons that that might be happening is the absence of good nutrition, good meals for children to have. A full stomach allows you to learn better and remember better and comprehend better. It also allows you to be in better shape and take care of yourself.”

This week advocates and officials kicked off a campaign to get the word out to students that free and healthful meals are being served all over their communities.

“We are going to hit the streets to let people know about this,” said Neil Shilansky, a music teacher from East Hampton who planned on walking around the North End of Hartford Monday.

The number of children showing up for free meals over the summer has remained stubbornly the same at about 35,000 children in Connecticut since the 2003. Meanwhile the number of children signed up for subsidized meals during the traditional school year has increased to almost 150,000 students, a 23 percent increase since the 2002-03 school year.

Officials are having trouble getting students breakfast during the regular school year as well. Connecticut ranks dead last in the number of schools that provide breakfast, and in the middle when it comes to low-income students having access to free- or reduced-priced meals, according to the national advocacy group FRAC, or Food Research & Advocacy Center.

In an effort to address this gap, the state two years ago lowered the eligibility requirements for schools to qualify for state assistance to open programs. Nolan said the effort is starting to pay off, with 68 schools adding breakfast programs between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years.

“It’s been working,” she said.

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