Thanksgiving is tomorrow, and it is one of the most wholesome days of the year: so many of us cook, eat and spend precious time with our loved ones. But it is also a day when the inequities in our community are abundantly clear: there are those who have food to eat, and there are those who go hungry. Hunger does not take a holiday.
Right now in Connecticut, one in 10 residents and one in eight children fall into the latter category. In our respective professions, we all see these struggles firsthand every single day, not just during Thanksgiving. In the first two years of the pandemic, children in Connecticut’s public school system were universally fed breakfast and lunch in school consistently as an effort by our local, state and federal governments to help mitigate the economic and social impacts of COVID-19. So many kids, including those who were just on the cusp of qualifying for free-or-reduced price lunch, would have fallen through the cracks for the past two years if it weren’t for this emergency relief.
This program – federal free school meals – which has funded Connecticut’s aforementioned initiative to feed all children breakfast and lunch no matter their ability to pay, was cut off a few months ago. As a state, we’ve been able to use leftover money to continue feeding students since, but money is quickly running out. Just like children in other communities across the nation facing the same issue, there will be no more turkey or pie when our kids return to school after the holidays.
In the absence of federal leadership and funding, some of our neighboring states have stepped up and faced this challenge, including Vermont and Maine, whose children have experienced no interruption in receiving breakfast and lunch at school. Earlier this month, Colorado became the latest state to adopt permanent universal school meals. California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and large municipalities like New York City, Chicago, and Nashville have all committed to feeding their children through legislative action.
School meals have been a lifeline for families, and we know there is nothing more critical than making sure students have enough to eat.
In the 2020-21 school year, Connecticut schools served 25 million meals; and in the 2021-22 school year, they served nearly 74 million. During both school years, school breakfast and lunch were covered under the now-ceased federal funds, allowing all children access to a meal regardless of ability to pay. Without a statewide effort to continue the accessibility to school meals, hunger will get worse – and our schools and communities will suffer. We will see more children shamed because they cannot afford a meal and we will see children who aren’t ready to learn. We know that when children have access to proper nutrition, they learn better. Undernourished students have poorer cognitive performance, and are more likely to have behavioral and attention problems compared to other students.
This is not a hard problem to solve. And our state legislators have the moment to do it: the Connecticut legislature plans to return to Hartford a few days after Thanksgiving and they will consider several proposals to get our state through these difficult economic times. This is our moment to be the next state to step up and feed all our kids. We know it works, and we need it.
Next week, legislators plan to consider much-need initiatives like an extension of the gas tax moratorium, free bus service, and “hero pay,” policies that have assisted many Connecticut families and individuals during the current period of high inflation.
While we agree, we also urge the legislature to not forget the children – many who are living on the edge and do not traditionally qualify for free meals (requires families to make at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line).
We know families are doing their best. They face challenges, and in some states, the problem has been made worse as school meal funding has expired. But Connecticut can join states who have extended school meals through this school year – and beyond.
While federal funding for school meals has expired, our state has a critical opportunity to make sure all kids can eat. In doing so, our state would join the others who value their children enough to invest in them, so they are well-nourished and ready to learn. Especially during this holiday season, there is nothing more important than ensuring that no Connecticut child goes hungry.
Mike Walsh is the Mayor of East Hartford and Member of Share Our Strength/No Kid Hungry’s Mayors Alliance to End Childhood Hunger. Julieth Callejas is the Executive Director of End Hunger Connecticut! Jason Jakubowski is the President & CEO of Connecticut Foodshare. Dawn Crayco is the Northeast Regional Director for FoodCorps. Erin Perpetua is the President of the School Nutrition Association of Connecticut and Director of Food Services for Norwich Public Schools.