Bill in Vermont would make school meals free

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX/Gray News) - On Tuesday, education advocates announced a new bill that would bring free breakfast and lunch to all schools over the next five years and put a focus on buying local food, WCAX reported.

Students at the Integrated Arts Academy in Burlington. Vt., file through the lunch line picking their favorite foods. They are one of the school taking part in a federal program that provides meals for students. (Source: WCAX/Gray News)

“Making sure our students are well-nourished contributes not only to the quality of their lives but the quality of their learning,” said John Tinney of the Vermont National Education Association.

A 2017 study from the University of Vermont found that with universal meals, kids had greater access to food. There was more local food in school cafeterias, a greater readiness to learn among students, less financial pressure for everybody and, also, a better overall social climate.

“This bill gives students access to consistently healthy food: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats and appropriate nutrition,” said Kathy Alexander, the school nutrition director at the Mount Abraham United School District.

Currently, 55 Vermont schools offer universal meals under a federal program.

“It’s well-established that a hungry child cannot learn,” said Heather Torrey, the assistant director of the Burlington School Food Project and the president of the Vermont School Nutrition Association.

Torrey says being able to feed all their students levels the playing field. "It acts as a universal equalizer,” she said.

She also said staff can focus on preparing good food, not on chasing down unpaid bills.

“Our students aren’t worrying where are they going to get their lunch from - ‘Do I have money on my account?’” Torrey said.

Torrey said having universal meals districtwide in Burlington would make life easier for families at their three schools that currently are not able to offer them.

"It's very confusing for parents," Torrey said. "And it's hard for us to try to explain that to parents, as well."

While all that sounds good, it’s going to hinge on the cost, and that’s where the details are still murky.

The bill’s sponsor said on Tuesday it would cost $4 million in the first year, which isn’t much.

But that isn’t a good representation of what it will ultimately cost taxpayers each year because that number is going to go up each year as more schools enroll over the five-year period.

In a memo last year to the Senate Agriculture Committee, the Agency of Education estimated that universal meals statewide could cost around $50 million.

Hunger Free Vermont said they’re still working to figure out the final costs of offering free school meals, but their very early estimate is around $20 million, or an estimated 1.2% of Vermont’s overall education spending. Their executive director said they’re confident it will not be as high as $50 million.

The bill says the cost of the meals that are not reimbursed by federal funding or other sources would be the district’s responsibility, and ultimately that of the education fund.

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