Everyone knows that hungry kids can’t perform in school. It’s common sense.
We also know that free breakfast and lunch provided at school deliver the needed nutrition for children to learn and thrive. And, if all kids eat at school — regardless of income — the stigma of hunger and poverty evaporates.
Some kids in Connecticut schools eat meals alone in their school bathrooms because they are too ashamed to reveal to their peers that they qualify for free school meals. No kid should have to face hunger — much less the unfortunate stigma of it.
That stopped when the legislature and the governor stepped up earlier this year to feed all children in school for the remainder of this school year, which is quickly ending.
In the fall, kids will go back to going hungry again. And there is currently no plan to help kids get fed in school. The Appropriations Committee just came out with its budget proposal, which didn’t include specific funding for universal free school meals.
In Connecticut, the median household income is $83,545. If you are a parent trying to provide for two children and your household earns over $37,000 annually, your family does not qualify for free meals. These working parents get a small subsidy for school meals up to $51,400 of annual income, which still leaves 305,000 kids out.
Being a child at school unable to pay for lunch — but unable to qualify for a free one — is a total failure of our education and political systems. Not a single child should be going hungry in a state like Connecticut, with its affluence and privilege.
Moreover, the cost to fund free school meals for another year is a fraction of 1% of the budget — when Connecticut is looking at a $1.35B surplus for fiscal year 2023.
This year alone, Minnesota and New Mexico have stepped up to make feeding kids in school permanent. Maine, California, and Colorado have already done it. Vermont may enact universal school meals this month. Massachusetts is poised to do the same. New York just passed the largest increase in school meal funding in the state’s history. Starting in the fall, 80% of New York state schoolchildren will be offered both breakfast and lunch at school. At a minimum, Nevada is feeding all its kids for the next three years.
My foundation, Solving Hunger, helps states pass universal school meals by providing additional political firepower to get bills across the finish line. That means our job is to play hardball because hungry kids don’t have lobbyists and they don’t have advertising budgets, and they certainly cannot wait for politicians to do something who don’t know how tough their lives can be. And while the hunger advocates we work with are very dedicated, they don’t have the budgets or leeway to run the kinds of aggressive campaigns we can.
This month, we played hardball in Connecticut. Without the knowledge or consent of skilled and good-hearted hunger advocates in Connecticut, I hired billboard trucks to drive around, asking why Speaker Matt Ritter, Senate President Martin Looney, and Gov. Ned Lamont were going to let kids starve?
I wanted to get their attention, but more importantly — I’d really like to know how they think the problem will get any better if they don’t take action. This year, Connecticut kids incurred record meal debt when the federal COVID subsidy stopped, so the legislature had to act. They passed an emergency certification totaling $90 million to feed all the kids. And the relief in schools and for families was palpable.
But now there is zero funding planned for school meals, and the feedback around the Capitol is that the leaders are mad about my trucks.
Budgets are moral documents, and Connecticut families need to know the priorities of their leaders. Those priorities must align less with their perceived self-image and more with the kids they purport to serve. It would be a shame to prioritize budget surpluses and fiscal guardrails over hungry kids.
Connecticut hunger leaders, educators and non-profit leaders are working on behalf of hard-working families and kids in Connecticut, and their leaders should do the same. Kids are going hungry in school, but who are the ones really acting like children?
Bradley Tusk is the founder and CEO of Tusk Philanthropies, which funds Solving Hunger, and runs legislative campaigns in states to expand access to food assistance programs, especially school breakfast and lunch.