NORWICH - Children shouldn't have to go hungry, and Norwich Public Schools are helping to keep that from happening, both during the school year and summer vacation.

Starting with the first day of school Aug. 29, all students in the city's schools will be provided with free breakfast and lunch, not just those whose families meet required income levels.

"It was better for the families," said Erin Perpetua, the district's director of food services. "After running the numbers, it made sense."

"Now everyone's equal," Superintendent Abby Dolliver said. Because the meals are free for everyone, there's no longer any potential stigma for students, and parents can avoid having to fill out forms listing their incomes.

"We don't have to identify anyone this way," Dolliver said. "It just makes it easier."

While school is out for the summer, Perpetua's department also serves free breakfast and lunch to children younger than age 18 at 33 sites throughout Norwich and Sprague. Any child who comes is eligible to be fed.

About 28,000 meals have been provided, Perpetua said, and she expects almost 40,000 meals to be served this summer.

The meals are paid for by federal funds.

On Thursday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, visited the children's department at Otis Library, where a couple dozen children lined up to receive lunches handed out by a volunteer, then sat together at the library's tables to eat them.

The children are given options of two deli sandwiches, a yogurt meal or peanut butter and jelly, plus their choice of assorted fruits and veggie sticks, and milk or juice to drink, Perpetua said.

Eight-year-old Chereyo Arroyo, a student at Samuel Huntington Elementary School, ate a ham and cheese sandwich, which he said is his favorite. "I've had other ones, but I like this one," Chereyo said.

"We appreciate it," his mother, Morningstar Figueroa said.

"We have a ton of kids anxious to learn," Library Director Robert Farwell said. "Having lunch available is just a wonderful addition. It's one of the reasons we're so pleased to be participating in this program."

The congressman chatted with the children as they ate, asking what school and grade they were in. He praised the lunches, which were prepared at Moriarty Elementary School, one of four kitchens that supplies the program's meals. "The quality is excellent. They clearly spent a lot of time making sure it's healthy and balanced," he said.

Lunch at the library was the last stop for Courtney and aides to U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal. Starting a couple hours earlier, they visited the Dolphin Community Center and Eastern Point Beach in Groton, where free lunches also were distributed to children there.

The tour was arranged by End Hunger Connecticut, a statewide nonprofit organization, to raise awareness about the summer meals program.

Courtney said many children served in the Dolphin Community Center belong to military families who have an adult stationed at the sub base. "People don't realize a lot of enlisted families use the program," he said.

"This is about working families," the congressman said at a roundtable discussion at the library on fighting child hunger. "This is not a handout."

Shannon Yearwood, executive director of End Hunger Connecticut, said keeping children from going hungry is a good investment. "Providing a balanced meal really sets you on the right path to reach your educational goals," she said.