Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories that look at how the numbers of local families accessing food assistance programs have changed in the past decade.
ADDISON COUNTY — The number of children across Vermont and Addison County who are enrolled in the free and reduced-price school meal program has exploded in recent years — more than doubling in some local schools.
The meal program, aimed at providing food security for Vermont’s low-income children, is part of the USDA’s National Lunch Program, which was first enacted in 1946 with the stated goal of improving child nutrition and balancing farmer surpluses.
But while more children are participating in Vermont’s school meal program, there are many hungry families who still are not applying. Local education leaders said the reason, in many cases, is there’s a parent stigma surrounding the program.
Percent of students by district in free and reduced-price meal program
“People are going to do everything to not ask for help,” said Bonnie Bourne, co-principal at Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary School. “So, many people who may qualify might not ask for help. There’s that pride piece.”
Kathy Alexander, president of the Vermont School Nutrition Association, has witnessed similar behavior from parents, and she believes it often stems from a misunderstanding about the program’s funding.
“It’s really hard for people to ask for that money,” said Alexander, who also runs the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union (ANeSU) Food Service Cooperative. “It breaks my heart because the money is there. The government has set that money aside for food for kids.”
The school meal program is considered an entitlement program because any child whose family meets the income qualifications will receive a free or reduced-price meal, explained Anore Horton, child nutrition manager at the nonprofit Hunger Free Vermont.
“The amount of funding is dependent on the number of free- and reduced-price-eligible students eating free meals around the country,” said Horton. “There is no pot of money that’s going to run out.”
For Lincoln’s Kristen Andrews, a single mother of four, finding a way to feed her children was growing burdensome.
“It was very stressful for our family to make sure everyone had enough to eat,” she said.
But Andrews was hesitant to enroll in the program; she had earned a master’s degree. Was she really worthy?
“I just felt like I shouldn’t be asking for this. I was lucky enough to get an education and therefore I should be able to provide all the money for my children,” she said. “But I’m a single mom with one income and a house, and it’s really hard to pay for it all.”
Four years ago, Andrews — who is also the healthy food coordinator for ANeSU schools, teaching about nutrition — signed up for the program. And she hasn’t looked back.
“As a single mother, to have that stressor taken off my plate really helps,” she said. “When my kids are at school, they can pick what they want to eat and they can pick the portions they want to eat. I just feel like they’re getting a better meal.”
Before Andrews understood how the program was funded, she was afraid that she might take resources away from someone in greater need. But that’s not how the program works, since it’s need-based.
“I realized that by signing up, I wasn’t taking funds away from someone else,” she said.
The more students that participate in a school’s program, the more funding that school gets. The USDA reimburses schools at different rates for school lunches. It provides $2.77 for free lunches, $2.37 for reduced-price lunches, 26 cents for lunches students buy outright and a 22-cent commodity subsidy for all lunches. Several years ago, the Vermont Legislature passed a bill that also covers the 30 cents it would cost for reduced-price breakfasts, making them free for all qualifying children.
Andrews said that her only concern about school lunches is the quality of the meat and some of the vegetables. But, according to Andrews and Horton, the more students that participate in the program, the higher the food quality should be.
“The amount of reimbursement is based on the number of qualifying students,” said Horton. “If every student at every school would participate in the school programs, they would have more money to improve food quality; to buy more local food, which tends to be more expensive; to hire more staff, who are usually people from the local community; and to have more staff time put toward cooking from scratch, which is a big cost for school food programs.”
Since 2003, the number of students enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program across Addison County and Vermont has grown substantially.
According to Vermont Department of Education numbers — which only stretch back to the 2003-2004 school year — the number of students enrolled in the program has increased by more than 30 percent across Addison County’s three main school districts in the last eight years. At ANeSU, the percentage of students enrolled in the program jumped from 25.1 percent to 35.99 percent, and at Addison Northwest Supervisory Union (ANwSU) that number jumped from 25.84 percent of the district-wide student body to 35.7 percent. The number of kids participating in Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) has almost doubled from 21.14 percent to 37.6 percent of students across the nine schools. (Officials noted that in 2003-2004 year Shoreham and Salisbury had no students in the program because they had no school lunch programs.)
Addison County is reflective of a statewide trend of growing participation in the program, which has grown by more than 35 percent so that now 37.93 percent of all Vermont students take part.
In fact, since 2003, every ANeSU, ANwSU and ACSU school has seen a rise in student participation in the program, except Ripton Elementary School, which witnessed a slight drop to 48.89 percent of the school’s total students (visit addisonindependent.com to see rates for all ANeSU, ANwSU and ACSU schools).
Some ask if this increase is a reflection of a harsher economic climate or improved social services.
“I think it’s probably a combination of both,” said Laurie Colgan, who administers the state program as the director of child nutrition for the DOE. “Definitely the impact of our economy factors in, but there are also more people accessing the programs. The program is better advertised. It’s easier to apply for benefits. And there’s a lot of information about it.”
Vermont has felt the impact of a national recession in recent years. Since 2003, the state’s unemployment rate went from just above 4 percent to as high as 7.2 percent in the summer of 2009 to 4.9 percent in February of this year.
Around the time unemployment hit its height in 2009, the state raised the income cap on eligibility for 3SquaresVT — Vermont’s food stamp program — from 130 percent of the federal poverty line to 185 percent. That increase not only led to more Vermonters having access to the 3SquaresVT program, but it also boosted school meal program numbers because the children of 3SquaresVT families automatically qualify for free and reduced-price school meals.
Mary Hogan’s Bourne, who has witnessed participation numbers at her school almost double to 45.5 percent of the student body, also thinks that more students are willing to participate because school cafeterias in Vermont are offering higher quality food and meeting higher nutritional standards.
Meanwhile, state agencies have streamlined the way they record, store, and share information about the program, and they have publicly campaigned to expand its reach. Another big change that has streamlined the application process for many districts is the unification of school food systems, like ANeSU’s Food Service Cooperative. Alexander explained that bringing five of the ANeSU’s schools under one food service umbrella has provided kids with better access to the school meal program because fewer fall through the cracks.
When there are too many bureaucratic kinks between a child and a free or reduced-price meal, said Alexander, kids can go hungry.
“I’ve had situations in other districts where the applications weren’t dealt with as efficiently,” she said. “Honestly, it makes me mad because there are kids who get refused meals because their application could be sitting on someone’s desk. To me that’s unconscionable.
“It’s about feeding kids. This can’t get mired down in some sort of bureaucratic backlog. It just can’t.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at firstname.lastname@example.org.