Gov. Ned Lamont was joined by several lawmakers Monday to promote free school meals throughout the 2023-24 school year. Jessika Harkay / CT Mirror

A $16 million investment into the Connecticut school meals program will give thousands of students free breakfast and lunch through the upcoming school year.

Funded with federal COVID-19 relief funds, the program extension goes through June 2024. Officials said the money will be spent “supporting students and families in two very important ways.”

“The funds will be used to enable the provision of breakfast meals at no cost to our students in schools that participate in the federal school breakfast program that ensures that every student can begin their day with a nutritious meal, fostering a conducive environment for learning and growth,” said Department of Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker.

The free breakfast program will be open to any student who is enrolled at a school that serves breakfast. To date, about 114 districts offer breakfast — and according to Russell-Tucker — over 177,000 students will benefit from the expansion.

The funds will also allow students who qualify for reduced-price meals to instead receive food for free.

“That means approximately 13,197 reduced-price-eligible students will be able to receive a lunch at no cost,” Russell-Tucker said. “For a family of three that usually pays for reduced meals for the students, they’ll be saving $378 for the entire school year.”

Despite their enthusiasm at the news conference at Charter Oak International Academy in West Hartford Monday morning, Gov. Ned Lamont and other lawmakers in attendance made no promises about the program’s future after American Rescue Plan Act funds expire next year.

“I think making sure that our kids are well fed at school, getting into the day and end of the day, is really important,” Lamont said. “We’ve got free lunches in most of our urban areas, extending it now to our suburban towns as well, to make sure that nobody’s left behind. I think we’re just getting started.”

When asked about their commitment to continue expanding the program and whether the state is prepared to fund universal free school meals next session, Lamont said his administration and lawmakers have to “see how successful this is and see what the budget looks like next year.”

“I think many of us are committed, it’s just how much we can go up in increments. Sometimes going up all at once is very difficult,” Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, added. “It has to be an agreement between both sides in the House and both sides in the Senate. It’s just gotta be agreeable, so that we don’t hurt either side too much. I think increments, as the governor chose to do this year, is the best at this time.” 

According to state data, 42.4% of Connecticut students, or about 216,000 school-aged children, were eligible for free or reduced-price meals last school year, a 2% increase from the 2021-22 academic year. 

“One in eight kids in this state are food insecure, and many kids — even those kids that aren’t counted — their families have food insecurity that we can’t even pretend to know about,” said Lucy Noland, the policy director at End Hunger Connecticut. “One thing we learned during the pandemic was that kids need the meals to get going and to get ready to go to school and learn. … There is a reason that schools serve breakfast during state mandated testing times. … I think that when we learned that our kids need these school meals, we learned it during a period where there were no school meals and the kids didn’t eat breakfast. They wouldn’t eat breakfast [or] eat lunch … when they had to pay for it, so it is critically important that we have this.”

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror’s Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika's experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Baylor University.