Editorial: A superior idea, but do we have the will to adopt universal free meals?

The idea of “universal free meals” for all school students during the academic school year is so obviously superior to what this country has done for a century or more, one wonders how we ever thought that singling out a select group of kids for a subsidized meal was a good idea.
As it is, parents and kids wake each school day and hurriedly cram whatever time they have into a routine that gets them to school in the nick of time; whether that entails early morning farm chores before classes start, going for early morning sports practices, or waking up 30 minutes before class and racing to beat the tardy bell. The result is that lots of students start the day without breakfast (nationally, the figure is 60 percent) and not every student either brings a lunch or can afford to buy one. That means kids are often hungry and not as primed to learn as they could be.
From an academic perspective, teachers viewed the “universal free meal” as overwhelmingly positive, according to a two-year study by the University of Vermont done in Vermont schools that have implemented the program (all but two counties — Windsor and Addison — have at least one district school enrolled in the plan).
No doubt when similar studies examine student performance, we’ll also learn that students perform better academically when their minds are not distracted by hunger. Those conclusions seem obvious.
Less obvious is how we transition from what we have to a wholly different approach.
In a front-page story this past Thursday on the topic, Addison Independent reporter John Flowers attended a gathering in Middlebury of the Hunger Council hosted by Hunger Free Vermont Executive Director Anore Horton. The concept of Universal Free School Meals, she told those attending, is a model that allows all students to eat one or two meals (breakfast and/or lunch) for “free,” but of course it’s not free for the host school. Participating schools not only incorporate the meal program into the budget, but also into the overall school curriculum by creating a learning lab for healthy eating and a mealtime experience where all students are equal.
The life-long health benefits of such a program are obvious as is mitigating the stigma associated with receiving subsidized meals.
The stumbling block in this capitalist-minded society of ours is the upfront cost. In Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union (representing four elementary schools in Highgate, Franklin, Sheldon and Swanton, and the Missisquoi Valley Union Middle/High School serving 1,150 students), Horton estimated it would take an additional $100,000 to implement universal meals in that district’s schools. Locally, Addison Central Supervisory Union chairman Peter Conlon said it was on his list of priorities to discuss, but that he suspected “we would need to lower our costs before we could take on such a significant expense.”
But just how skewed is our perspective on this? Consider how our communities afford other school expenses, like textbooks, school computers, physical education equipment, chemicals in the science lab or art supplies, all of which are supplied by the school district.
“We only do this with food,” Horton pointed out. “We treat food as somehow separate and different within the school building than all the rest of the educational supports we provide.” Horton noted that the federal Child Nutrition Bill is up for reauthorization this year, and Hunger Free Vermont wants to make universal school meals a top priority at the state and federal level.
“This is a structural and financial problem in the federal meals program that has to be addressed,” she said. “We’re already paying for an inefficient, unequal food system that’s not supporting, as well as it might, great education and health outcomes for every student.”
To get there, however, we would need a shift in values.
“We are the highest-cost educational system in the U.S.,” added Lynn Coale, executive director of the Addison County Relocalization Network and a former superintendent of the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center. “If we can’t make sure every kid is getting two free meals, we just have our priorities completely screwed up.”
Which is the case. Question is: Do we have the will to change?
Angelo S. Lynn

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