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Home » Capitol Recap: Advocates urge Vermont lawmakers to permanently fund universal school meals
School nutrition officials across Vermont are urging lawmakers to permanently fund a universal free meal program that is scheduled to expire at the end of the school year. But Gov. Phil Scott says he doesn’t want to use limited taxpayer resources to buy free breakfasts and lunches for children from families who can afford to pay.
Each week, Vermont Public’s policy team provides a succinct breakdown of some of the biggest issues at the statehouse.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020, the federal government introduced a statewide free school meals program as part of its food security efforts.
The US Department of Agriculture ended that program after the 2021-2022 school year, but Vermont lawmakers allocated $29 million in last year’s budget to keep universal meals alive for another year. With that funding ending in June, school nutrition directors are now asking the Legislature to make universal meals permanent.
Karyl Kent, director of school nutrition at the Lamoille North Supervisory Union, told lawmakers this week that the program is transformational.
“You changed a system and you changed a culture in the schools in Vermont,” Kent said. “You have changed the culture of school nutrition in the state of Vermont and are setting a model for schools across the country.”
“In terms of the program itself, and whether it’s meaningful, complete, consistent, and consistent, it’s been a good thing for Vermont students, for Vermont families, and … for farmers, too.”
Shaftsbury Rep. David Durfee
State legislatures in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada have also opted to use state funds to top up federal money paid for meals during the peak of the pandemic.
However, Vermont’s Republican governor said this week it was time to drop the universal program. While the government should definitely foot the bill for school meals for families who can’t afford it, he said taxes paid by working-class Vermonters should not be used to subsidize the grocery bills of wealthy residents.
“A universal program would actually weigh on those we’re trying to help, helping those who are wealthy enough to pay for it,” Scott said. “So I would prefer that we take care of those who cannot afford it on their own and help them. But if you can afford it, you should be able to provide for your family.”
The problem with this approach, according to Anoreorton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont, is that thousands of needy Vermont families are not eligible for free and discounted federal meal programs.
Once a family of four reaches a household income of $36,100 per year, their children are no longer entitled to a free lunch. At around $51,000 a year, they no longer get the discounted price.
Analysts from the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office, meanwhile, say that to meet their basic needs in Vermont, a family of four needs a household income of $70,000 a year.
File of the Vermont Agency of Education
At Hardwick Elementary School, a salad bar offers a variety of fruits and vegetables.
“So there’s about 30% to 40% of the students that are currently in school in Vermont that fall into that gap whose families aren’t really able to fully meet their basic needs,” Horton said. “And the easiest way is to cut the food budget, but they also can’t afford school meals and they will never qualify for them under federal guidelines.”
School nutrition workers at Vermont schools say they’ve seen other benefits of the universal meal program as well. Kent said removing the “stigma” that low-income children experience in getting their school meals is perhaps the most important thing.
Class differences used to show up clearly in the cafeteria, Kent said, based on what kids had to do to get their meals or what meals kids are currently eating.
Doug Davis, a former school nutrition director in the Burlington School District, said universal free meals have also “streamlined the business of child nutrition.”
Administering the free and discounted food program added enormous bureaucracy to the school food system, he said. Unburdened by the accounting requirements that accompany federal food programs, he said, cafeteria staff now have time to cook food from scratch and test recipes.
“Throughout my career in child nutrition, I have believed this to be the best investment we could make in our children’s education.”
Harley Sterling, President of the School Nutrition Association of Vermont
Schools are also buying more food from local producers, thanks to a state-level incentive that offers financial rewards to schools that spend at least 15% of total food costs on Vermont produce.
“Throughout my career in child nutrition, I have believed that this was the best investment we could make in our children’s education,” said Harley Sterling, president of the School Nutrition Association of Vermont and director of school nutrition for the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union. “Now that we’ve seen universal school meals in action for the past three years, I not only believe it, I know it.”
Vergennes Rep. Diane Lanpher, chair of the House Budget Committee, said it was too early to say if her committee would find room for universal school meals in the House budget proposal.
Go Deeper: Education Agency Report on Universal Meal Program Results So Far.
But the chair of the House Committee on Agriculture, Food Resiliency and Forestry, which oversees school lunches policy, said his committee will almost certainly seek funding to fund the motion.
“In terms of the program itself and whether it makes sense, complete, consistent, consistent, it’s been a good thing for Vermont students, for Vermont families and … for farmers too,” said Rep. David Durfee, a Democrat from Bennington .
Regarding the governor’s concerns, Durfee said the public education system generally pays whatever a child needs for school, regardless of how much their parents make.
“We don’t require certain families to pay for textbooks or tuition or anything else that we offer as part of public education,” he said. “And the benefits are spread more widely than families who would otherwise pay.”
Brattleboro Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, said if lawmakers decide to fund universal free meals, the money should come from the education fund.
Adding new costs to the fund that finances public schools, however, would result in an increase in property taxes — an outcome Kornheiser hopes to avoid.
“My hope is that if we decide as a body to find another source of income for the education fund to make up the difference so that it doesn’t impact … property tax rates,” she said.
Kornheiser said her committee has not yet formed a revenue mechanism. She noted that her committee recently received a presentation on all products currently exempt from sales tax.
“Coincidentally,” she said, removing those exceptions would yield about the $29 million a year that Vermont would need to fund universal meals.
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