Senator Osten, Representative Walker, Senator Berthel, Representative Nuccio, and esteemed Connecticut General Assembly members of the Appropriations Committee,
Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony in support of House Bill No. 6659, specifically with regards to long-term funding for universal no-cost meals for Connecticut students. I am the President of United Way of Western Connecticut, which represents a 15-town region that includes Stamford, northern Fairfield County including Danbury, and Southern Litchfield County including New Milford. We support hard-working households called ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) to help ensure that they have every opportunity to succeed and thrive in Connecticut. ALICE families make more than the federal poverty limit but not enough to afford basic necessities like housing, food, child care, healthcare, transportation, etc. Across our state, pre-pandemic, more than 1 in 3 families live at the ALICE threshold or below.
I want to start by thanking you and your colleagues for supporting the emergency certification earlier this month. Your support will ensure that every child can afford to eat breakfast and lunch at school for the remainder of the school year. Now, you have the opportunity to support hundreds of thousands of children and families by extending that funding into the Fiscal Years 24 and 25 budget.
When pandemic-era school meal funding ended in November and December, it left thousands of children, families, and schools scrambling for solutions to ensure that students are successful and school meal programs are financially viable. Without that funding in place, the impact on children and schools would be devastating. School meals are costly, and families are stretched thin financially. Far too many ALICE families make too much to qualify for free or reduced lunches, yet not enough to afford necessities. Without significantly altering the income qualifications for reduced lunches, they are forced to make difficult decisions about where to allocate their minimal funds, and it’s often their children that inadvertently suffer.
Children availing themselves of free and reduced-price meals are more readily identified by their peers, leading to stigma and bullying. In some districts, those who do not have money for meals are given a different meal, something akin to a plain cheese sandwich compared to the hot meals that their peers receive. Food service directors across the state share that even those students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals will not eat at school, preferring to go hungry rather than be identified as food insecure.
No-cost school meals level the playing field for all students, promoting equity and inclusion. School meals should be a universal benefit like desks or textbooks, not an afterthought. Studies show a direct link between access to universal school meals and improved academic performance, attendance, and classroom behavior. Kids feel safer in school when meals are universally available. The risk of obesity is lower, especially for children in poverty. Families have economic relief. Children do not go hungry.
According to the Rockefeller Foundation, every dollar invested in providing healthy meals for students leads to at least two dollars in health, economic, equity, and environmental benefits. Universal access to no-cost school meals is an essential ingredient to a successful education and a vibrant economy. When children are fed and when families are financially stable, they thrive and so do our communities. The failure to invest in no-cost school meals for all students negates every investment we make in educating our children because a hungry child cannot learn.
With the legislation we are supporting, school districts across our state will be required to maximize federal school meals dollars first and foremost, including participating in federal cost-sharing programs. School administrations will reap the benefits with time and cost savings due to reduced administrative burdens. This legislation also offers opportunities for our state to make additional reinvestments into meal programs, such as local procurement, nutrition education, and menu diversification that support our local economy and encourages lifelong healthy eating for all.
No-cost school meals for all students do not detract from our educational investments. It does not have to be an either, or. School meals are an investment – one of the best we can make – in student success and the future of Connecticut.
Thank you to the committee for the opportunity to submit this testimony. I urge you to support this critical program for our kids, their families, and their success.
President, United Way of Western Connecticut