Advocates lobby for free meals at Vermont schools

MIDDLEBURY — Hunger Free Vermont, a statewide anti-hunger advocacy organization, is engaged in a major lobbying campaign to allow all public schools to stop charging families for breakfasts and lunches during the academic year.
They’re called “universal free meals,” and Addison and Windsor counties are the only areas in the state with zero schools offering such an amenity, according to Hunger Free Vermont Executive Director Anore Horton.
The concept of Universal Free School Meals is a model that allows all students to eat school meals for free. Participating schools build the meal program into the overall curriculum, creating a learning lab for healthy eating and a mealtime experience where all children are equal and enjoy meals together, Horton said. (Click here to read a sidebar about the benefits of universal free meals.)
“Learning is the student’s responsibility, and making sure students have what they need to learn is our collective responsibility,” Horton told a group of Addison County human services providers at a recent Middlebury gathering of the Hunger Council. She added, “No student should learn about hunger and shame through personal experience at school.”
But Horton said that’s just what’s happening with the current food service model at most Vermont public schools, where children pay varying amounts (or nothing) for breakfasts and/or lunches based on their household income level.
There’s a socio-economic stigma that goes along with the payment system, Horton believes, and it’s time for state and federal authorities to change subsidies in a way that creates equal access to one of the basic necessities in life and for learning: Nourishment.
“Eating is elementary to education,” Horton said, adding school cafeterias tend to “categorize students based on their family income. We work very hard to try to minimize the obviousness of that categorization. There’s PIN numbers that students put in … yet we all know that students and families know what’s going on. We don’t do this with math text books, with PE equipment, with chemicals in the science lab, or arts supplies. We only do this with food. We treat food as somehow separate and different within the school building than all the rest of the educational supports we provide.”
Nationally, 60 percent of school students don’t eat breakfast before they begin classes, according to Horton. Some of those students don’t currently qualify for free and reduced-price school lunches because their respective household is earning more than the 185 percent of the federal poverty guideline. That amounts to $47,637 for a family of four.
“We don’t really know how many families in Vermont really can’t afford school meals,” Horton said. “That’s a really challenging thing to measure.”
Still, the Urban Institute recently tried to get a handle on the state of childhood nutrition in Vermont. The institute, a nonprofit research organization, published its findings in a Feb. 26 report. Findings included that as many as 42 percent of the children who are food-insecure in Vermont are ineligible for free school meals and for 3SquaresVT, which offers assistance buying food, like food stamps.
“That’s a huge number,” Horton said. “(The Institute’s) number one recommendation of what Vermont could do to advance in ending child hunger … is offer universal school meals.”
“When participation is up, school meal programs have more resources to invest in even higher quality food, including many local foods,” according to Horton. “Universal free school meals models are good for students, good for schools, and good for Vermont’s local economy.”
But barring a change in federal rules, adopting universal meals would force school districts to either rearrange budget priorities or ask for extra funds from taxpayers to supplement current federal subsidies.
The United States Department of Agriculture currently offers two financial pathways for districts wanting to adopt universal school meals:
•“Provision 2.” Aid is made available to any public school for providing breakfast, lunch, or both at no charge, with reimbursement based on the percentage of meals served in each category — free, reduced-price, and full pay — at the time the school enrolls.
Provision 2 is a four-year-program, after which the district’s reimbursement rate is recalculated based on the financial profiles of student families.
•The new “Community Eligibility Provision (CEP),” where schools can offer universal meals at schools in which 40 percent or more of enrolled students are from households in which someone is receiving subsidies through 3SquaresVT or through a program called Reach Up, or because the student is homeless, in foster care, a migrant, or is participating in a Head Start pre-kindergarten program.
Hunger Free Vermont has thus far helped 24 percent of Vermont’s public schools — serving a combined 16,400 students — transition to universal school meals, according to Horton. The 76 districts now offering breakfast and lunch at no additional cost include schools in the Burlington, Caledonia Central, Grand Isle, Lamoille North, Orleans Central, Rutland City and Washington Northeast school districts.
Advocates said it’s unclear what kind of funding local taxpayers would have to add to state and federal dollars to adopt universal meals at their schools. The number would vary from district to district, depending in part on their local low-income population and other variables.
Horton noted, however, that the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union recently estimated it would take an additional $100,000 to implement universal meals throughout the district’s nine schools.
Locally, Horton believes the Salisbury and Shoreham schools could qualify for universal meals through the Community Eligibility Provision. But other Addison County schools would need to come up with additional resources because not enough of their students meet subsidy requirements.
“Addison County is one of the counties that struggles the most in the entire state of Vermont … in having a high-enough percentage of low-income students to be able to operate these (subsidized meals) programs,” Horton said. “Many of the schools in the county have fewer than 50 percent low-income students, yet every single school has students who face hunger on a daily or weekly basis.”
Kathy Alexander, nutrition director for the Mount Abraham and Addison Northwest school districts, said an average of 35 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches in those districts. Around 18 percent would qualify for free lunches using the Community Eligibility Provision, she added.
“That’s a big (eligibility) gap,” Alexander said.
Officials noted an even smaller percentage of students would probably qualify for free lunches in the Addison Central School District. Superintendent Peter Burrows noted that currently no ACSD schools are eligible for the Community Eligibility Program.
“In order to provide support for those that need it most, we continue to refine our systems to ensure that eligible students receive services,” Burrows said. “ACSD’s vision of whole child wellness is central to our approach to providing access to services.”
Hunger Free Vermont is making universal school meals its top priority for 2019, both at the state and federal levels. Horton noted the federal Child Nutrition Bill is up for reauthorization this year, and she and her colleagues want the state’s Congressional delegation to advocate for changes in that legislation that would allow more Vermont schools to qualify for free meals.
“This is a structural and financial problem in the federal meals program that has to be addressed,” Horton said. “We’re already paying for an inefficient, unequal food system that’s not supporting, as well as it might, great education and healthy outcomes for every student. We could be paying for a system that delivers so much more to our students now and in the future.”
Lynn Coale, executive director of the Addison County Relocalization Network, is former superintendent of the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center. He believes school districts should look within their respective budgets for student food funding, rather than depending on the feds to pay the entire bill.
“It’s not about giving kids free lunch, it’s about how much federal reimbursement we can get to help pay for that,” Coale said. “We are the highest-cost educational system in the U.S. If we can’t make sure every kid is getting two free meals, we just have our priorities completely screwed up.”
Peter Conlon, chairman of the ACSD board, vowed to put universal meals on his panel’s discussion agenda.
“Food service is something we need to talk about, as we currently have six independent meal programs at our smaller schools and a contracted service for our schools in Middlebury,” he said. “I suspect we would need to lower our costs before we could take on such a significant expense.
“I personally believe in universal meal programs and hope we can get there in the future,” he added.
Horton hopes state and federal officials can be convinced of the importance of universal school meals.
“School cafeterias can be inviting, simple and satisfying spaces, money-free and worry-free zones where all feel welcome, safe and nurtured,” Horton said. “School cafeterias can be powerful places for learning about school nutrition and healthy eating practices. But that works best when everyone is at the same table, sharing the same food.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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