A low-income lunch bill slips away

VERMONT — A proposed law aimed at reducing the financial burden of school meals for children in low-income families has been in the Vermont Legislature for two years now. But with huge financial setbacks following Tropical Storm Irene, legislators say it won’t come to a vote this year.
In 2008, legislators passed a bill to provide free breakfasts to all students eligible for the state’s free and reduced-price meal program. Before this bill became law, reduce-priced meal students paid 30 cents per breakfast.
The 30 cents represents the difference between what the USDA reimburses schools for a free breakfast and what it reimburses for a reduced-price breakfast. The feds provide schools with $1.51 for a free breakfast and $1.21 for a reduced-price breakfast.
After the bill passed, the state began paying schools 30 cents per reduced-price breakfast.
In its first year, the bill stimulated a 25-percent increase in the number of students on reduced-price meal plans eating school breakfasts, said Laurie Colgan, director of child nutrition for the Vermont Department of Education. The nonprofit Hunger Free Vermont, which was instrumental in helping pass the first breakfast bill and is pushing for this second lunch bill, estimates that, since 2008, the subsidy has led to an 85-percent increase in the number of reduced-price meal students eating school breakfasts.
To do the same thing for school lunches — make all lunches free for low-income children — the state would have to allocate 40 cents per reduced-price lunch served. As with the free breakfasts, the 40 cents represents the difference between what the USDA pays schools for each free lunch they serve ($2.77) and what it provides for reduced-price lunches ($2.37).
Dorrigen Keeney, program director at Hunger Free Vermont, offered an informative breakdown of data surrounding school lunches when providing testimony to the Legislature earlier this session.
“A family of four that qualifies for reduced-price meals makes between $28,665 and $40,793, well below the $77,980 needed to meet their basic needs, according to the Joint Fiscal Office (in 2009,)” the statement reads. “Therefore, many low-income families cannot afford the estimated $9 (per) month required to pay for lunch at the reduced price.”
But to make this program work, it would require approximately $300,000-$400,000 in state funds, said Johannah Donovan, chair of the House Education Committee. Although school food leaders and hunger prevention advocates have been gunning hard for this new lunch bill (formally known as H.234), Irene’s drain on state finances will prevent its approval this year.
“H.234, I’m afraid and sad to say, we will probably have no action taken on it this year,” Donovan said recently. “With the tight budget crunch we are in, we just simply can’t find the $300,000-$400,000 it would take to implement this. Hopefully by next biennium we’ll be able to have a solution.”
While local education leaders are pushing for more access to free food for low-income families, some families aren’t necessarily gung-ho about the idea.
One local mother, who wishes to remain anonymous, has two kids on the free meal program through the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union’s Food Service Cooperative. While she’s glad that her children are receiving better quality food than they once did at school, and the free meal program is a financial relief for her family, she said that parents should also be held somewhat accountable for their children’s nutrition.
“There should be a limit on how much the government is expected to do,” she said. “Parents do have to take some responsibility as well.”
Bonnie Bourne, co-principal at Middlebury’s Mary Hogan Elementary School, said some parents have confronted her about lobbying too much for these school meal programs.
“One mother told me point blank that ‘I like to eat breakfast with my husband and children,’” said Bourne. “There’s nothing wrong with that. What we’re trying to offer is breakfast for those families that don’t have the time (or money) to do that.”
Colgan and Kathy Alexander, director of ANeSU’s Food Service Co-op, agreed with Bourne. They said that it’s fine if some families don’t want to participate in the program, but there is still a need for a legislative lunch bill to make meals more accessible to more children. Not only did the 2008 bill boost enrollment in breakfast programs across the state, but it helped schools save money. Many of the students who previously couldn’t afford those breakfasts, said Colgan, were children in the reduced-price lunch program.
Alexander thinks the new bill, if passed, could help reduce ANeSU’s food service debt, currently totaling $33,000 across the district.
Much of that debt in ANeSU and other school districts, Colgan said, comes from reduced-price meals.
“We’re hearing from schools that they’re having difficulty collecting money for meals,” she said. “And often for the reduced lunch students, with even just paying 40 cents, it’s challenging because perhaps they’re just over the income guidelines. In some households it’s a real challenge. We definitely support the bill.” 

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