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Connecticut schools find other solutions as USDA waivers for free lunches expire

Throughout the pandemic, all kids under 18 across the U.S. got free breakfast and lunch

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — Throughout the pandemic, all schools in the country had the option to use USDA waivers to serve free breakfast and lunch to students under 18. 

However, those waivers expired June 30, and now many schools are trying to problem solve since their families have been relying on those free meals for two years. 

"What we've learned, especially from the last two years of COVID, is that even those who had to pay for meals pre-COVID, when the opportunity was available to them to have these free meals, the need came out and the need showed and the need was more expressed," said Randall Mel, Food Services Manager at Middletown Public Schools.

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Mel said the district saw the number of students eating free lunch at the schools jump by about 20% throughout the pandemic. When the district learned the USDA waivers were expiring, they did another survey and got a different type of federal help.

"Here in Middletown, we have a lot of students that fall under the classifications of what they consider direct certification, so, students who receive benefits from Husky, from SNAP and from a variety of other state-funded or federally funded resources," Mel said. "We have such a high amount in this district due to the economic need in the city that we were able to apply and then be approved for the Community Eligibility Provision." 

Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, is federal funding provided to schools that have almost half their population on free and reduced lunches. Before COVID, five of the district's 10 schools were CEP-funded. 

"Our direct certification of those who qualify for those programs kind of skyrocketed in a sense to the point where all 10 of our schools now more than qualify for this provision," Mel said.

So, for the next four years, all students in Middletown Public Schools can eat for free. 

"Now, our students don't have to worry about where they're getting their first two meals of the day," Mel said.

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It's welcome news to one Middletown family.

"Oh, it's been a struggle. Especially with the price of everything going up, especially this last year, it's a struggle," said Tammy Czaja, Middletown mom of three. "Trying to pay for things and making sure that, groceries alone, like I have three kids, it's a family of five, and I don't walk out of the grocery store at less than $250."

Even the kids are excited about the opportunity to fill up for free. 

"I feel more focused when I get breakfast.  And, I don't have to worry about not eating a snack because even if I don't have it I'm normally not hungry because of me being able to eat breakfast," said Tayor Czaja, who is going into 4th grade at Snow Elementary School.

Connecticut has also stepped up, offering $30 million to districts through something called "SMART" funds. The money is meant to help Connecticut school food authorities (SFA) for a few months, offering free breakfast and lunch. After the funds run out, they will switch back to the National School Lunch Program, where students must apply for free and reduced lunch or pay up. 

Connecticut's school districts could opt into getting those funds by August 19.

East Hampton Public Schools enrolled as soon as they could.

"We immediately said 'Yes, we absolutely want these SMART funds. We want our students to be able to eat for free,'" said Jennifer Bove, School Nutrition Director for East Hampton Public Schools. "That money we expect to run out in November or December." 

And when the money does run out, students will have to pay for meals again. In the meantime, Bove is encouraging parents to send their free and reduced lunch applications to prepare for that day.

"Send in your application doesn't hurt anything to send in. You may have never applied before but if you think you are sending your application. you can save about $900 A student per year that's a huge amount of money and your kids are gonna get fed really healthy and nutritious delicious meal," Bove said.

But, Bove is worried some students may fall through the cracks, especially those who are just under meeting the requirements for a free and reduced lunch. 

"I think parents are very confused. I don't think they understand exactly what's going on. And I think it is confusing, right? We're talking federal funding, state funding, it's going to end. I mean I think parents are very confused. And that's what we're getting. We're trying to be as clear and explicit as possible. But it's confusing," Bove said. 

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Districts are sending out communication on how to apply for free and reduced lunches and what it takes to be eligible. 

Bove said the sooner parents apply, the better. 

Districts have 10 days to process those applications once they get them.


Julia LeBlanc is a reporter at FOX61 News. She can be reached at jleblanc@fox61.com Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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