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Group seeks more free meals at schools; ANeSU takes the lead

BRISTOL — Three Addison Northeast Supervisory Union schools have become the first in the county to offer three meals a day to their students, a service that a prominent anti-hunger organization would like to see extended to every public school in the state.
Moira Cook, director of the Middlebury district office of the Vermont Department of Health, confirmed on Tuesday that after-school meals are being offered in addition to free- and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches at Robinson Elementary in Starksboro, Bristol Elementary and Mount Abraham Union High School. Bristol and Robinson elementary schools are offering hot meals in conjunction with after-school programming, while Mount Abe is providing cold food packed in a bag for students on the go to sporting activities, she said.
Meanwhile, a statewide nonprofit called Hunger Free Vermont (HFV) is urging all schools to follow suit. Representatives of HFV told members of the Hunger Council of Addison County on Tuesday that their goal is to see children have access to good, nutritional food throughout the day while at school, realizing that some of these children go home to empty refrigerators and cupboards.
“At Hunger Free Vermont, we feel that meals should be part of the learning environment, and should come with your education, along with textbooks, access to a nurse, access to a counselor and access to a school bus,” said Faye Conte, the organization’s director of advocacy and education.
Conte noted HFV is trying to boost school food programs on several fronts.
First, it is encouraging school officials to apply for federal subsidies to stabilize and expand their meal programs.
For example, Conte stressed that if 50 percent or more of a school’s student population is enrolled in its free/reduced-price meal program, all students become eligible for free, daily after-school meals and snacks, as well as for two meals a day throughout the summer.
Communities that meet the 50-percent threshold are assured of receiving the extra federal meal subsidies for five consecutive years, Conte explained. Summer meal sites were offered this year in Bridport, Bristol, Middlebury, Starksboro, New Haven and Vergennes, according to information provided by HFV.
And several Addison County communities are on the cusp of meeting the 50-percent threshold for free/reduced-price meals, according to Conte. The Salisbury Community School, for example, is currently four students shy of meeting the mark.
Local communities that offered summer meals this year reported great attendance.
Kids consumed almost 10,000 free meals at a combined total of six Vergennes sites during an eight-week period this year. A variety of Middlebury sites provided 11,079 meals to children ages 18 and younger.
“People were lining up every day,” said Barbara Saunders, co-director of the Mary Johnson Children’s Center, which was a lead coordinator of the program.
“It is a program with tremendous potential to grow if we can find more locations and funding,” she added.
Middlebury College student volunteers provided critical assistance in making sure summer meals reached many who did not have the ability to get to a centrally located meal site. The crew — which recently won a $25,000 grant to purchase a meal delivery van — handed out an average of 50 meals each day at three area mobile home parks, including Brookside and Lazy Brook.
Dustin Hunt is a Middlebury Parks and Recreation Department official who helped with the summer meal program. He said the free meals benefitted a wide variety of people.
“The lower-income families didn’t feel like they were being singled out,” he said.
UNIVERSAL SCHOOL MEALS
On another front, HVF is seeking to make Vermont the first state in the union to offer “universal school meals.” This would mean that all students would get free breakfast and lunch at school regardless of their household income. There are currently two avenues through which school districts can apply for federal reimbursement to provide universal school meals. That reimbursement can be based on meal participation rates at the time of enrollment, or based on the number or students in that school receiving benefits through other federal programs like 3SquaresVT or Reach up, according to Conte.
Forty-eight Vermont schools are now providing free breakfasts and lunches to a combined total of 12,000 children, Conte said.
“That means that 14 percent of all public school students have access to universal school meals,” she said.
Unfortunately, none of those 48 participating schools are in Addison County, Conte noted.
“We do think that Whiting and Sudbury, Neshobe (in Brandon) and Benson are likely eligible to run the program,” she added.
Hunger Free Vermont officials want to see as many schools as possible hop aboard the universal school meals bandwagon before making a statewide push, Conte explained.
FEDERAL HELP
And the time is ripe for getting some additional school meal help from the feds, according to HFV leaders.
Congress on Sept. 17 will begin marking up the Federal Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation, due for its five-year renewal, Conte noted. That massive bill includes the setting of school meal nutrition standards and reimbursement rates, among many other things. The reauthorization of this bill is an opportunity for communities to lobby for higher nutrition standards, the inclusion of more local foods and larger subsidies for school meals, Conte stressed. With that in mind, the Vermont Child Nutrition Reauthorization Coalition has drafted a petition calling for 10 specific recommendations for revising the federal bill.
Some of those recommendations include:
•  Lowering the percentage of low-income students required to qualify for free after-school and summer meal sites from 50 percent to 40 percent.
•  Supporting the Farm to School Act of 2015 to provide additional funding for farm-to-school programs in Vermont and nationwide.
•  Providing EBT funds to low-income families during the summer months when school meals aren’t available.
Conte is asking people to visit hungerfreevt.org/vcnrc to view, and possibly sign onto, the petition.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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