Higher fuel costs for heating and transport are already having a negative impact on the Cheshire school budget. Higher costs to feed student bodies are also a real concern, especially the status of the free lunch program.
The state-funded initiative, which began during the pandemic, has enabled state schools in Cheshire to provide free breakfast and lunch to all pupils under 18, regardless of their ability to pay . That, however, will change, officials explained at the Education Council’s Aug. 11 meeting.
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 COO 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 pointed out, and although the state may provide additional money in the future, there is no guarantee that he 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 Board at a previous meeting, but was postponed until October 1. 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 fall.
“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.
In response to a concern expressed by Council member Anne Harrigan about the past stigmatization of students receiving free meals, Masciana clarified that “when one student is online, there is no way for another student to know who (receives) free or who is (received) reduced (meals). Students just need to show their ID or enter their PIN. And even if the student is not on free or discounted (meal plans) and has no balance on their meal account, that meal is processed. So nobody knows, and nobody should know.
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 lunch program for the entire school year from the district’s operating budget, adding, “It ties directly 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 could be revisited by the Board as early as September at a future meeting, when there will be more data on the number of students who receive free meals compared to the number of students who bring their own meals from home. them. 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.”