Cheshire schools free meals scheme could end in November

CHESHIRE — Rising fuel costs for heating and transport are already having a negative impact on the city’s school budget. Higher costs to feed student bodies are also a real concern, especially the status of the free lunch program.

The federally-funded initiative, which began during the pandemic, has enabled state schools in Cheshire to provide free breakfast and lunch to all pupils under the age of 18 for the past two years, regardless of regardless of their ability to pay. A new state program will allow the school system to continue providing free lunches, but the money could run out as early as November, officials said at a Board of Education meeting last month.

The program, School Meals Assistance Revenue for Transition, or SMART, went into effect this month in response to the expiration of federal waivers that had allowed universal meal distribution during the pandemic. School officials expect to discuss the fate of free school meals again later this month.

As it stands, schools in Cheshire will have $687,000 – of the $30 million statewide budget allocation for the program – to use to provide meals, enough money to “probably get through November,” according to district chief operating officer Vincent Masciana, “and if we can extend that date, we will.”

“The requirement for this money is that it must be used to provide free meals, breakfast and lunch to all students,” Masciana said at the Aug. 11 meeting, adding that although the State may provide additional funds in the future, there is no guarantee that it will be able or willing to do so.

Once the money runs out, a solution may be to charge most students again for breakfast and lunch. Cheshire Schools Food and Nutrition Services’ August newsletter promised ‘sufficient notice’ so parents know what prices and policies will be before state funding runs out.

The idea of ​​raising meal prices to account for higher food and labor costs was approved by the school board at a previous meeting, but was postponed until October 1.

“We don’t see (higher costs) coming down any time soon. There are still food shortages and price increases that we will face at the start of the school year,” Masciana said.

Masciana detailed some of the changes parents and students can expect this school year.

“Even though meals are free, students will need to provide their ID and they will be treated, because that’s how we have to submit to the USDA for reimbursement,” he said.

Masciana also said that “the other change is that when we have early dismissal in middle school and high school, we have to provide lunches for the students. We didn’t do this in the past, but now it is necessary. We also cannot do take-out meals, so we cannot give students a meal that they can take on the bus and take home.

Harrigan wondered if it would be possible to fund the free meals program for the whole school year from the district’s operating budget, adding: “It is directly related to student learning because we all know that students don’t learn when they’re hungry. ”

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jeff Solan responded that the actual cost of funding the program would have a “substantial impact on our operating budget unless we ask the city for more money.”

The issue may be revisited by the school board as early as this month at a future meeting, when there is more data on the number of students who receive free lunches versus those who bring their own school lunches. the House. Masciana was asked to provide impact models for different scenarios.

“If we can’t afford free meals in our budget, maybe we can charge a reduced price to help cover the increased costs,” he said. “That’s another way to analyze it.”

Christy J. Olson