Children can get free meals at Danbury this summer, but experts say the scheme should be permanent

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DANBURY – Before lunchtime starts at noon, staff at Danbury Library organize meals and select entertainment for the 20-30 children they expect to arrive each day.

“It’s great for us because kids are already in programs over the summer so they don’t have to leave to go somewhere or have lunch, and also for kids who can’t afford to have lunch or to go somewhere or to go get food at home to get it somewhere other than schools,” said Katie Pearson, director of the library.

Communal meals at Danbury Public Library are provided through a partnership with Danbury Public Schools, which coordinates 13 meal distribution points providing meals to thousands of students over the summer made possible thanks to United States Department of Agriculture programs administered by the Connecticut State Department of Education.

Statewide, federal funding enables Connecticut school districts serving low-income communities and their partners to operate 400 distribution sites, mostly concentrated around the state’s major urban areas, where meals are offered to any child under the age of 18 – no questions asked, according to End Hunger CTa non-profit organization that provides a updated school meals distribution map Locations.

Pearson said the library started hosting the free lunch program eight years ago but, in the wake of the pandemic, put it on hold for the past two summers.

Yet during this period Danbury schools continued to provide summer meals to students under a hosted pickup model outside of city school buildings – a process made possible by a federal waiver of the law. on education allowing food service personnel to distribute food outside of what is called a “gathering setting”; and it brought to mind the daily problems of food insecurity that plague hundreds of thousands of Connecticut children and their families.

About 305,000 children in Connecticut last year lived in a household with an income below a designated threshold, called the ALICE Thresholdconsidered necessary for survival, including families living below the poverty line as well as those who do not earn enough to pay for essential costs such as housing, childcare and food, as well as “transportation, health care, a smartphone plan and paying taxes”, according to a study by the United Way of Connecticut.

“As recently as the fall of 2021, 41% of Connecticut families with children and living below the [A.L.I.C.E] Threshold reported that sometimes or often “kids didn’t eat enough because we just couldn’t afford to buy enough food,” the report said.

Tida Infahsaeng, food policy manager for United Way of Western Connecticut, explained how relaxed school food service regulations introduced to deal with social distancing policies meant some Connecticut school districts saw an increase in lunch programs free during the pandemic, with delivery systems found under all federal waivers, including those allowing delivery and take-out options.

In addition to allowing summer lunch program pickup models developed under federal waivers, other Education Act exemptions have made it easier for school lunch service providers to adapt. to the work required of remote and hybrid learning models and, as supply chain disruptions have upended food sourcing efforts across industries.

“There were clearly households and families who needed food but were not receiving food during the regular school meal service, either because there was a lot of process to get a free or priced lunch. reduced or whether children and families. not knowing how it works or being afraid to be part of the program,” she said.

Perhaps most notable among the waivers came from the cancellation of eligibility rules allowing all students to receive a free or reduced-price meal option.

Although the waivers expired on June 30, a new federal law passed in late June extended some of the waivers included in the pandemic-era legislation through the end of the 2022-23 school year, including those that facilitate the supply of products to school service providers. without meeting federal nutrition guidelines, but the planned universal compensation for a free meal option expires at the end of this summer.

Bethel Schools Superintendent Christine Carver said the district does not offer a summer lunch program, but like other school districts in the area, “we provide our parents with the addresses of Danbury schools that provide breakfast and lunches so they can go further. there if they wanted to ask them.

However, following the expansion of food access during the school year under federal waivers, Bethel has joined with school districts state and nationwide to provide universal free lunches until ‘ at the end of that school year, Carver explaining that there were ‘a lot of kids who took advantage of it.

“I can tell you they don’t call and say they want this to continue, I know for a fact [families] greatly appreciated not having to pay for it for their children or having to pack lunch for their children,” she said.

With federal funding for the universal lunch option for public schools expiring, Carver said Bethel Schools will resume providing free lunch only to eligible children. That’s about 29% of the district’s population, she said.

Infahsaeng said the importance of helping schools expand access to food for students in need – both during the school year and in the summer months, whether they qualify for reduced prices or free or unpaid food options – is especially pressing with record inflation affecting the bottom line for all Americans.

“These things should be made permanent and not removed because people who are low income families, they are always struggling, the rate of inflation far exceeds anyone’s age or income increases and the cost of life is fair, it’s out of control, and people are still earning minimum wage or more and that’s not enough,” she explained in a phone interview.

“Families with children are among the hardest hit and school meals are extremely important and the people who work in school catering are heroes because it’s very very complicated and difficult and they have very small budgets that they work with. .”

Furthermore, Infahsaeng highlighted the social benefits arising from the fundamental nature of a universal free student meal option that goes beyond an economic impact.

“Kids accessing these programs feel different and feel different because they’re in a special category, and I think what the pandemic has shown us is that universal free meals should be universal every year “, she said.

School insecurity beyond K-12 schools

Just as summer vacation for local public school students doesn’t end families’ food insecurity concerns, neither does graduating from high school.

According to a Financial difficulties 2020 study by United Way of Connecticut, “a 2018 survey of more than 1,400 students, faculty, and staff at the University of Connecticut found that in the previous year, 25 percent were concerned about not having enough food to eat due to a lack of money, and 45 percent were unable to eat healthy foods because they lacked money or other resources.

Passed in this year’s legislative session in Hartford, state law effective March 2023 will require every public higher education institution in the state to interview enrolled students “for the purpose of collecting data on the number of food-insecure students and the causes and reasons for such food insecurity,” as a precursor to a required assessment of public campus services aimed at meeting this need produced every two years at from October 2023.

Finally, the law requires the public institution to produce its first biennial report by January 1, 2024 documenting the progress of any program put in place to alleviate the food insecurity of its student population.

Concerns about food insecurity among Connecticut students are not limited to the state of Nutmeg and are exasperated by additional financial pressures resulting from student loans and broader economic pressure.

“Furthermore, although many students are employed, [at the national level,] 45% of students who responded to the largest annual college basic needs survey said they had experienced food insecurity in the previous month, and 56% had experienced housing insecurity in the previous year,” adds the report.

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