They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was: the Department of Agriculture made school meals free for all students, regardless of income. This federal program was extended for the 2022-2023 school year but is set to expire this year, even as food prices are expected to grow by an additional 6 percent over the course of 2023 (overall inflation is currently sitting at just over 3 percent).
Fortunately, state governments have stepped in. In February, Minnesota governor Tim Walz signed a bill guaranteeing free breakfast and lunch to all students in the state, regardless of family income. Currently, the federal government pays for free or reduced-price meals for students but limits who qualifies; the Minnesota law spends an additional $388 million to cover the cost of free lunches for those who don’t qualify for the federal program.
In August, Josh Shapiro, the governor of Pennsylvania, signed a one-year budget bill that spends $47 million to provide free school breakfasts to all public school students in the state. Massachusetts, my home state, just approved a one-year budget that will spend $172 million to provide free, universal school meals to all public K-12 students. At the time of writing, six other states — California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico and Vermont — have enacted similar policies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Making school lunch free is just a no-brainer. Research shows that poor nutrition can harm students’ academic performance, and that universal free school meals improve math scores in school districts where few students qualify for means-tested free meals while reducing suspensions for white male students by 17 percent. Universality has other benefits. It lowers administrative costs. It saves busy parents time spent on filling out paperwork to receive the benefits they deserve and reduces social stigma.
Here in Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont is using $16 million of federal COVID-19 relief money to fund a temporary extension of universal free school meals through June 2024. But the governor is unclear on whether or not he will push to make free school meals permanent, telling The Connecticut Mirror that his administration will “see how successful this is and see what the budget looks like next year.”
It is true that we are in a macroeconomic environment where fiscal austerity is warranted: for the first time in the 21st century, aggregate demand is too high rather than too weak. But Connecticut can still afford to make school meals free for all — permanently.
Last fiscal year, the state budget came in at a total of $41.2 billion ($20.7 billion came out of the state’s general fund, with the rest coming from federal transfers). The cost of extending free school meals through the current academic year comes out to less than 0.04 percent of that total. And the Nutmeg State is one of the richest in the United States. Again, per the Urban Institute, Connecticut’s per capita income was just under $85,000 in 2022, compared to a national average of just over $65,000, and the median household income for 2021 was just over $83,000 (ranking sixth among the states) compared to the national average of about $69,000.
There’s no excuse for children to go hungry in the classroom in a state this wealthy, especially since the cost of keeping school meals free amounts to a rounding error in the budget math. If lawmakers are searching for “pay-fors,” I have a couple of suggestions. Sin taxes on substances with negative social externalities — booze, cigarettes, and weed — could be raised. The state might loosen zoning laws and reap the reward of higher property tax revenue. Or it could raise taxes on the rich.
Figuring out the financing details for this program is a job for policymakers in Hartford. What you, the reader, can do is write your state legislators. End Hunger Connecticut, an advocacy organization, has a handy tool that you can use to contact them and a bill that would make free meals permanent. If you’re a Yalie registered to vote in New Haven, like me, then your state senator is Martin Looney, the majority leader — an office that carries a great deal of influence in state-level policymaking.
I encourage you to write to Gov. Lamont and Majority Leader Looney, and to ask them to pass legislation making school lunches free. I voted for both last fall, and I hope they do the right thing for Connecticut’s children.
MILAN SINGH is a sophomore in Pierson College. His column, “All politics is national,” runs fortnightly. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org