The Easton-Redding-Region 9 (ER9) school districts are once again charging public school students for meals after a state grant providing free meals for all students exhausted its remaining funds last week.

“The grant money is gone,” said Deena Robushi, ER9’s business operations manager. “We calculated it would last until [Friday, Jan. 20].”

The no-cost school meals had been funded through a $30 million School Meals Assistance Revenue for Transition ( SMART) grant. The state earmarked the money for all Connecticut schools after a United States Department of Agriculture free school meals program established during the pandemic expired in June of 2022.

The ER9 school districts received $354,729.42 in SMART money for the 2022-23 school year to provide free school meals to roughly 2,500 students in the district, Robushi said.

Before the pandemic, free meals were available only to eligible students and those who attend schools in qualified districts. Those students are still eligible for no-cost and reduced-price school meals.

Robushi said the end of the free meals program for all students might pose some financial strain on families. She is encouraging families to fill out an application to see if they qualify for no-cost or reduced-price meals. The application can be found on the district’s website.

“The pandemic has created new hardships,” Robushi said. “There are families of second-graders who have not paid for a school meal in two years.”

The daily price of a school lunch is $3.15 at the elementary school, $3.50 at the middle school, and $3.75 for Joel Barlow High School students.

Several states are considering making universal free school lunch permanent. In Connecticut, the East Hartford-based End Hunger Connecticut! is urging state lawmakers to pass legislation to provide emergency funding to re-start the free school meals program for all Connecticut public school students for the remainder of the current school year.

“During the pandemic we saw how critical no-cost school meals are for our students and their families,” said Lucy Nolan, End Hunger CT!’s policy director. “More kids ate and were ready to learn. Losing these meals is devastating to families and their children and the lunch ladies and schools. In towns that stopped serving no-cost meals for all, participation has fallen significantly, and in some [towns] around 40%-50% and school meal debt is rising, ” Nolan said.

Parents with school children can fill out a form on the End Hunger CT!’s website to contact their legislators and urge them to pass legislation providing emergency funding, Nolan said.

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