The number of students eligible for free and reduced-price school meals grew during the 2022-2023 school year but remains below the eligibility of students state-wide during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Statewide, 42.4 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced price meals during the 2022-2023 school year, an increase of nearly 2 percent from the 40.6 percent of students eligible during the 2021-2022 school year.
During the 2018-2019 school year, statewide student eligibility for free and reduced-price meals was 42.1 percent. The following year, 2019-2020, eligibility increased to 43.3 percent, then fell slightly to 42.7 percent during the 2020-2021 school year. All three school years were affected by COVID-19 related school closures.
Eligibility for free and reduced price school meals through the National School Lunch Program is determined by a variety of factors. Children can be “categorically eligible” if they participate in federal assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or through enrollment in a Head-Start Program. Family size and household income can also determine a child’s eligibility. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible to receive free meals, while students whose families have incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible to receive reduced price meals.
In the last decade, the lowest percentage of eligible students was 36.7 percent, during the 2017-2018 school year.
During the most recent school year, 28 participating Connecticut schools had student populations that were 100 percent eligible for free or reduced price meals. Ten of these were located in the Hartford School District.
In the same year, there were 21 schools with no students eligible to receive free or reduced price student meals. The eligibility rate at a number of other schools was not recorded, as the State Department of Education suppresses some reported data, to protect student privacy.
During the pandemic, the federal government expanded eligibility for free school meals. Waivers put in place by the federal U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which administers the National School Lunch Program, made school breakfast and lunch free to all K-12 students who attended schools participating in the school lunch program in 2021.
In 2022, the Keep Kids Fed Act, which increased reimbursement rates for school lunches and breakfasts and gave the USDA expanded authority to waive requirements for school meals, became federal law.
Federal funding for all students at participating schools expired on September 30, 2022. Connecticut legislators allocated $30 million in federal pandemic relief funds to extend free school meals through the end of 2022.
In February 2023, a bill that included an additional $60 million in funding to extend the free school meals program through the end of 2023 school year became law.